Occasionally, restaurant openings go smoothly.
Staffers show up, diners are happy, kitchen equipment cooperates.
The other 99 percent of restaurant openings aren’t as fun.
Just ask Tuan Nguyen. He opened his much anticipated Vietnamese street food eatery, La Cà Bar, two weeks ago on Sixth Avenue, and was immediately mobbed by diners.
He ran out of food.
At 7 p.m.
So much for a smooth opening.
His response was to slow the pace of the restaurant. He limited the hours to dinner only and reduced the menu. Lunch will come later after he upgrades some kitchen equipment.
The restaurant mirrors some of what you’d find in Tacoma’s Lincoln neighborhood — the area’s finest for Vietnamese dining — but La Cà Bar goes beyond pho and banh mi to offer tastes of what Nguyen grew up eating in Central Vietnam.
One dish is native to the area where he grew up, Tuy Hoa, that combines steamed chicken with coriander, onions and garlic with tangy pickled, papaya carrots. Chicken wings are splashed with fish sauce, and quail gets a robust five-spice lacquer. He calls it simple street food geared for Vietnamese and American palates.
Here’s a first-bite look of the restaurant. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of food and service in a restaurant’s first month.
The space: Vastly different from its former life as Mexican-American restaurant El Guadalajara (the owner of that former restaurant now operates Agaves Grill by Tacoma Mall).
La Cà Bar now carries a more simple and modern design, with comfortable corners and nooks for lounging. How apropos because the bar’s name is a nod to a Vietnamese term for “hanging out” or “relaxing.”
The dark cantina decor upstairs was swapped with a lighter-and-brighter and more modern bar motif with subway tile and a cozy fireplace (21-plus diners). Flanking that fireplace is a communal table fit for a large group, bench seating along one wall and seating at the bar that’s lit up with neon. About 60 can be seated upstairs. Bonus: Room to roam between tables that aren’t squished together.
Downstairs also ditched the cantina theme and now boasts a modernized decor with simple tables, metal chairs and the same bench seating as upstairs. Brick walls are painted white, and one wall includes a massive collage of Nguyen’s favorite things, including a photo of his alma mater, Stadium High School.
About Nguyen: He moved here from Vietnam when we was 15. When he was in his 20s and “didn’t know better,” he opened a short-lived restaurant in the Lincoln District. He calls La Cà Bar his do-over restaurant.
The food concept: Nguyen calls his menu simple street food that goes beyond pho, although that’s on the menu, too. Keep an eye on the specials menu for more items that aren’t frequently found in local Vietnamese restaurants.
The menu: Appetizers list fresh noodle-filled rolls wrapped in rice paper ($6 to $8), plus fish sauce chicken wings ($8) and five spice chicken wings ($8). Three types of banh mi sandwiches, including cold or hot pork and grilled chicken ($7 each). Beef or chicken pho ($10 to $11). Vermicelli noodle bowls include chicken, pork or prawn versions ($10). Rice plates include grilled chicken or pork chop ($14), quail ($15), steamed chicken ($14) and two kinds of fried rice ($12).
For vegans: A separate five-item menu that includes tofu spring rolls ($6), tofu banh mi ($7), tofu mushroom pho ($10), a tofu-mushroom rice crepe ($11) and vermicelli bowl with tofu ($10).
On a first visit: Wait a bit to let the restaurant work out its menu, but when you do go, check out bird-on-the-bone. Look for the fish sauce chicken wings on the appetizer menu ($8). They showed up glossy with a sweet-and-pungent sauce enlivened by fish sauce that made them a must-eat with beer. The quail entree was boldly flavored with a crackly shellac that tasted of five-spice and deep garlic notes. That dish came with rice and soup garnished with a floating raft of cilantro ($15).
That same soup showed up with the tenderloin beef, a dish of heavily marinated beef that had been cubed and grilled with peppers and onions and served with the same tomato-scented rice as the quail ($18).
Be careful with the salted, chili fried rice because that heady spice will slap you in the face ($12). The dish was laden with grilled squid and baby shrimp, with a few veggies mixed in. The tongue sting on this one was Defcon Level Bring Me Another Beer. On that note, the menu includes wine, beer and a full spirits menu.