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Eric Banh's smoky new venture

By Ronald Holden

You might think, by the time you had a stable of five or six restaurants, that life would get easier. It does for some (unless they're lying), but not for Eric Banh. "If you gave me a free restaurant, I wouldn't take it, that's how hard it is," he told me a couple of weeks ago. He's just opened his third Ba Bar, at University Village, and was in the process of switching over his Seven Beef steakhouse into a casual-but-classy barbecue spot renamed Central Smoke. "It's just getting harder and harder to find people to work."

One big culprit: the construction boom that's responding to demand for new housing. Every builder wants (or needs, depending on local zoning mandates) ground floor retail, so there's a bandwagon for new restaurants. Much of the old-fashioned neighborhood retail, such as hardware shops, clothing stores and such, has been pre-empted by online merchants like Amazon, so what's left tends to be nail or hair salons, gyms, dry cleaners, and, yup, bars and restaurants.

That makes life doubly tough for established restaurateurs like Banh: more competition than ever for customers, and, worse, more competition for qualified staff.

Banh, who was born in Vietnam and emigrated to Edmonton after the war ended, moved to Seattle in 1988, where he joined his sister, Sophie, to open Monsoon, an elegant spot on Capitol Hill that fused Vietnamese, Chinese, and Northwest cuisines. (And whose charming building is under threat of demolition.) Since then, they've opened a second Monsoon in Bellevue, and a string of three Ba Bars ("Ba" means "dad" in Vietnamese). Also Seven Beef, which was a traditional celebratory Vietnamese meal, bò 7 món, built around different preparations of beef (grilled, sausages, steamed, etc.).

The trouble with Seven Beef (if you can call it that) was its position as a steakhouse in a part of town that couldn't support it. Enthusiastic support from neighbors, yes, but not enough expense accounts. Located in the heart of the financial district, Metropolitan Grill, for example, might do half its business with corporate accounts. Not so at 13th and E. Jefferson. There's another problem, even at the best of steakhouses. In a 100-seat restaurant, 60 percent of the diners might order a steak, and it takes a looooong time to properly cook and serve a steak. It can take an hour to do it right, from order to service. Not a problem at a downtown steak house like Met Grill, but a real problem at Seven Beef, which could only cook a dozen steaks at a time.

New wooden tabletops have replaced the white tablecloths that tamped down the sound level, and a new wall of colored panels separates the bar from the dining room. The former extra-wide "grand entrance" from Jefferson has been fenced off in favor of a side door from the existing patio. The grill will remain for a few steaks, but the main menu now is smoked meats: brisket, ribs, pork shoulder, sausages.

The chef for this venture arrived earlier this year: Mike Wisenhunt, whose most recent kitchen was Brimmer & Heeltap in Ballard. He was introduced to Asian barbecue by Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi at the short-lived Coupage in Madrona. "I was bowled over by their commitment to detail," he recalls, and went on to rejoin them at Joule.

Barbecue is still neglected in Seattle, demonized as vaguely low class and redneck. Wood Shop, one of the best, went from a food truck to a shop in the Central District, to a second store in Georgetown. Another is Jack's BBQ, started by Texas native Jack Timmons, who opened in SoDo, then added South Lake Union and hit it big-time with a spot at Safeco Field.

One misconception: that Central Smoke will have "smoke-heavy" cocktails. "A single smoke-infused cocktail takes three minutes," Banh points out. That might be acceptable for a single order at the bar at Monsoon, for example, but a disaster for a six-top dinner party. One alternative: a $12 Royal GT made with Empress 1908 gin, Fever Tree tonic, orange, lime, lemon, pink peppercorns, juniper berries, and mint. Delicious, but still convoluted; it looks like a damn Christmas tree.

The biggest advantage of barbecue: nobody expects it to be prepared à la minute or cooked to order. On the contrary. A brisket takes 20 hours in the smoker.

And what a smoker it is: custom built by East Texas Barbecue in Tyler, Texas, it's a five-section, 20-foot, trailer-mounted smokehouse that Banh maneuvered into the restaurant parking lot. (There's a fascinating video; the link is on Facebook; for all that, the manufacturer misspelled Banh's name on the plaque.) Behind the as-yet-unnamed "beast" are stacks of hickory cordwood. The fire pit is at the western end, where the logs burn evenly and generate the dry heat that feeds three "tanks," as they're known (horizontal drums made of quarter-inch steel). Inside each one, three racks the size of a kitchen table where the meat is slow-cooked by the smoke. Not hot-smoked but a steady temp of roughly 250 degrees (which Banh monitors via a cellphone app). At the east end, there's a rectangular multi-level warming oven which could, by itself, serve as a smoker for, say, salmon. And then there's that name-the-smoker contest on social media: Sweet Seattle, Chow Hound, Smoky-the-Bear, you get the picture.

Banh is still learning about barbecue (he's like a kid with a new puppy with that smoker) and hasn't lost his (admitted) compulsion to micromanage every detail of the restaurant's operation, which has led to more than one dust-up with his staff. But for now, the signs are encouraging.

Wisenhunt's tea-smoked duck wings are fine and will appeal to the Wild Wings crowd. Traditionalists will gladly devour the pork spare ribs and the exquisite corn bread topped with honey crème fraîche. I also liked the fried rice, the mac-n-cheese, and the pickled cucumber, but not the bland coleslaw or the mushy garlic noodles.

But it's the brisket that sets Central Smoke apart: appealingly pink and meltingly tender, it's soul food for anyone with a soul, regardless of origin. Even for eastern Europeans who would normally eat it with horseradish and sour cream. Wisenhunt has created two sauces especially for the brisket: a spicy barbecue condiment (mustard, vinegar, tomatoes, butter), and a second, creative, coffee-flavor (with added espresso and molasses) which should send the suits at Starbucks into paroxysms of ecstasy. As I type these lines, the brisket is set to be a Saturday-Sunday special, but I can foresee a pitchfork uprising to require more regular appearances on the menu.

August/September 2018


Ronald Holden is a Northwest native who's been writing about local food for over 40 years. His latest book, Forking Seattle, is available on Amazon.com. He blogs at Cornichon.org.


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