First Look at Ba Mien Bistro in North Houston
By Joshua Justice
Vietnamese pho shops are nothing new to even the far reaches of Houston — including the North Bammel and Klein areas of Houston, where no shortage of small, family-owned shops dot the strip centers along Veterans Memorial north of Beltway 8. For over 20 years, these small noodle and sandwich stores have enjoyed streaks of success and a constant customer base in the large Southeast Asian communities in and around Klein Forest and Aldine.
The challenge for small restaurant owners just north continues to be attracting the crush of traffic that buzzes up and down FM 1960 (I’m not calling it Cypress Creek Parkway, dammit). Families and lunchtime workers seem content to patronize fast food and fast casual chains while a steady stream of smaller restaurants of all shapes and sizes come and go seemingly unnoticed. Reasons abound for the continued failures, from poor marketing and bad locations to flat-out crummy food.
I’m as much to blame as anyone else. Having worked in and around the area for years, I was content to blindly pass small delis and barbecue joints for a fast meal at a chain down the street. Ba Mien Bistro, however, found a way — or ways, rather — to catch my interest well before they opened.
Driving by on my way to work last month, I noticed a bright stucco exterior along 1960 just East of Champion Forest Drive, a renovation of a former ramshackle barbecue joint. With a wrought iron fence, street lamp-style lights and a simple front awning out front, Ba Mien is a stark contrast from its previous incarnation and stands out from the adjacent strip center, which houses three different strip mall-style houses of worship (is this a new start-up business thing I’m not aware of? DIY church?), a barber shop and a tattoo joint.
Before long, banners hung on the newly-added patio area announced the impending restaurant along with something else that few small restaurants out here seem to bother with: Ba Mien has a dedicated, professional billboard front. Call me a sucker, but when business owners bother with the small yet important and often pricey details that present a complete product, I’m sold. It seems I’m not the only one, either: One week before I even noticed the place, a regular reader tipped off Eating Our Words to Ba Mien’s impending opening as well.
I visited Ba Mien a few days ago during their second full week of business to see what they had to offer. I was pleased to find that he attention to detail and upscale touches seen outside continue inside as well.
The husband and wife team — along with help from their children — have fully renovated the interior. A pristine marble counter complete with pastry case and small menu board greets you as you enter. The walls and trim have all been painted a glossy gray, offering an austere match to the stripped raw concrete floors. An arrangement of small gold frames softens the metal seating in the main dining room. The hard-meets-soft aesthetic is welcoming and light in its simplicity, something often missing in even professionally designed dining rooms at multi-million dollar restaurants — much less at a mom-and-pop pho shop.
Despite being a lifelong Houstonian, I won’t claim to be a banh mi expert and I’m not versed in the top 100 pho spots in Bellaire. I have, however, been eating the stuff since I was a teenager, so I do know what I like. Simple, fresh and well-seasoned are my keys to Vietnamese casual and Ba Mien is spot-on across the board. The vermicelli, served with two excellent egg rolls, was plenty for lunch (while probably small in comparision to some of the monster sized plates I’ve seen around town), leaving me to take my bánh patê sô to go.
Knowing I wouldn’t be back in the area for sometime, and having enjoyed my French patê pastry at home the night before, I visited Ba Mien again the next day to grab a quick banh mi. I found the sandwich every bit as enjoyable as the previous day’s lunch, served on a large, fresh, crusty French roll with massive hunks of chargrilled pork. My added fried egg was overeasy, its yolk streaming perfectly throughout my sandwich.
“Keep it simple, stupid” reigns supreme when dealing with banh mi sandwiches and this one was a textbook example of a genre in which “textbook” is a high compliment.
All in all, it’s a clever little cafe looking to spread away from the dozens of other shops just down the road. Clever touches on the outside hint at the care and attention to detail in the food. It’s nothing new, but it’s certainly something different.
New life for old Nampa hospital?
By KRISTIN RODINE
Today it’s a boarded-up, graffiti-pocked hulk that neighborhood teens swear is haunted.
By 2014, a Caldwell developer plans to have it transformed into a 50-unit complex for low-income senior citizens.
“This is a textbook case for urban renewal,” said Beth Ineck, Nampa’s assistant director of economic development. “It’s a historic, iconic building for our community that has fallen into disrepair and brought the value of that neighborhood down.”
After more than a decade of vacancy and decay, a new development plan promises to convert the property from blight to benefit, restoring the structure’s historic features and filling a need in the local rental market.
Earlier this month, the Nampa City Council voted to move ahead with a renewal district for the one-block Mercy site. The project is expected to increase the block’s assessed value from $362,000 to about $2.5 million, and the taxes on that increased value would go to the renewal district.
Within about 10 years, Ineck said, the Nampa Development Corp. renewal agency would funnel about $350,000 of those property taxes back to the developer to cover restoring the building’s historic facade, upgrading water lines to serve a 45,000-square-foot building with fire sprinklers, and improving sidewalks and streetscape.
“Our historic preservation commission has been concerned about this building for a long time,” Ineck said. So have Nampa’s police and fire departments, which have been summoned to the building frequently since its last occupant, Valley Plaza assisted living, closed in 1999.
Complaints from neighbors about the run-down condition of the building and grounds also have kept the city’s code enforcement division hopping. Ineck said city departments have made 500 visits to the site in the past eight years, and every time police have been called there, they need to send two officers in order to safely search the three-level building.
Homeless people and drug users sought shelter there; someone lit a fire in the former hospital chapel to help ward off the chill; and neighborhood youths explored the halls for spooky fun.
As recently as 2010, the old hospital seemed destined for demolition. But the basic structure remained sound, and the city was approached by a half-dozen development groups.
“A lot of people have looked at the building and got really overwhelmed,” Ineck said.
“I see the vision a little more each time I come here,” said CDI Development Officer Chance Hobbs, the project manager. “The first time it was, ‘Oh my gosh, this will be a lot of work.’ But then you start to appreciate the architectural details.
Designed by acclaimed Idaho architects Tourtellotte & Hummel, the Mercy building was modified and expanded several times, most recently with a boxy entrance in 1959 that “has no relationship to the architects’ original design,” according to a 2010 historical survey of the property.
In January, removal of that enclosed entry, framed in steel and sided with what appears to be green Formica, will clear the way for restoring the original outdoor staircase and facade.
CDI has a tentative agreement to buy the building from Boise architect Doug Tamura, Hobbs said, declining to reveal the price. The developer is in the process of obtaining tax credits for providing low-income housing and for historic preservation.
Securing those tax credits is essential to the project’s feasibility, Ineck said, as is the proposed urban renewal district.
To qualify for the low-income housing credit, developers must get a 5-percent match from the city, she said.
“Without the city, there’d be a half-million-dollar hole,” Hobbs said, noting that developers expect to get federal community block grant funds from Nampa in addition to the $350,000 from the renewal district.
To qualify for historic preservation credits, developers must save the building’s original design and historic features, from the wood-framed windows and wide hospital corridors to the low brick wall topped with wrought iron. The front landscaping — parched grass, overgrown shrubs and stumps of dead trees — also must be restored, Hobbs said.
Many of the features to be preserved and restored signal the structure’s past as a Catholic hospital, including a grotto with ivy-covered lava rock and a third-floor chapel with stained-glass windows.
Bid for new fence at historic Portsmouth home denied
By Elizabeth Dinan
Plans to replace a wood fence in front of an historic Portsmouth building with an iron fence forged by a local blacksmith, were denied by the city Historic District Commission after some commissioners noted the wood fence was cited in documents related to the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Would it help if the owner took this house off the historic register?” renowned mason John Wastrom asked the HDC at the conclusion of a Nov. 14 hearing.
“That’s what you could put in your appeal,” responded HDC Chairman Richard Katz.
The General Porter Condominium Association, owner of the 1751 Matthew Livermore House, petitioned the HDC for approval to remove the wood fence and replace it with one designed and forged by Portsmouth blacksmith Peter Hapney.
Wastrom, a mason and an archeologist with a master’s degree in historic preservation, told the HDC he researched the history of the 32 Livermore St. building, which was moved across Pleasant Street in 1898 to face Haven Park. He said he found a photo of the house taken in 1902, showing there was no fence there at that time. He also told the HDC a plaque in Haven Park features a historic image of area homes with “a fence style that appears to be wrought iron.”
“The wood fence first appeared in 1938,” he said. “The fence styles changed all the time in this area. For me, as a researcher and mason who has worked in this town, I’ve seen many changes. The (wood) fence is the latest incarnation of the fence.”
Hapney said his hand-forged fence would feature pickets turned on a diagonal, curved railing from the front steps and forged balls on top of the pickets. The finish, he said, would be galvanized, which he described as, “the Cadillac of finishes.”
An example of his fence work, he told the HDC, is erected along Middle Street next to the Masonic Temple.
HDC Vice Chairman Joe Almeida referred to a 40-page nomination form completed in 1984 by former owners of the Livermore House for the property to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Almeida noted the form “actually calls out the fence as a contributing feature.”
Available for viewing online, the National Register nomination form describes the fence as a “Colonial Revival fence with turned wood vases on three of its five wood paneled posts.”
“So it has been recognized by others that the fence is certainly appropriate for the house,” Almeida said. “Clearly, it has gone through several changes. I just always hesitate to change anything on a property that’s nationally registered. That’s a landmark.”
Wastrom appeared before the HDC with Hapney and woodworker Larry Hass and said commissions for their work at the Livermore House present a rare opportunity for them to “work at the top of our skills.”
“I ask you not to just think of the preservation of the building, but also the preservation of the craftsmen who have been working in this town for years,” he said. “The finishes being put in this house are absolutely beautiful. And the change to a wrought-iron fence is something that is not an incredible change. It’s going to be a wonderful addition to this house.” Almeida called the trio of craftsmen before him, “well-intentioned and more than well-qualified.”
“Local people working on this is incredibly important to me,” he said, adding he was “hesitant” to approve an iron fence because of the National Register listing. Esther Kennedy, the City Council’s liaison to the HDC, said she also considered the register listing significant.
“When a homeowner decides to go through all the work and a community decides to be a part of that, we’re saying this is what it is and basically standing behind that,” she said. “We made a commitment to the national registry, and I do believe that’s a commitment.” HDC member John Wyckoff also expressed his preference for the wood fence, stating, “It’s how we’ve known the house for more than 100 years.”
Commissioner Daniel Rawling said, “We know the wood fence and what it is. The iron fence is speculation.” In contrast, Commissioner Tracy Kozak said, “There is absolutely no question in my mind that the iron fence is appropriate.”
“The house used to be on Pleasant Street and most of the grand houses on Pleasant Street still have iron fences,” she said. “It’s very likely it had an iron fence and even if it didn’t, it’s very appropriate.”
Commission Chairman Richard Katz said, “In my mind, there’s no doubt to the appropriateness and if we go beyond that, it’s preference.” Wastrom told the commission he’s “touched every other brick in this town” and learned that “change is constant.” All these houses you see, they didn’t remain static,” he said.
Bundled with the condo association’s request for the iron fence was a second request to replace wood stairs in the back of the historic building with an iron spiral staircase, not forged by Hapney. A majority of the commission agreed with Wyckoff who said, “A fully contemporary spiral staircase stuck on the back is not appropriate.”
Kozak made a motion to approve the requests, but it was not seconded. “This is a very thorough, thought-out application,” Kozak said. “It would be an extreme asset to the city.”
By a vote of 4-3, the HDC denied the request for the iron fence and staircase. In a written denial, filed in City Hall, the commission wrote there is “no definitive evidence to demonstrate a wrought iron fence was ever located at the house.”
“That’s their opinion,” Wastrom said days after the hearing. The HDC also noted its reasons for denying the request for an iron fence as including evidence that a wood fence was there in 1898 and that “a decorative wood fence is more appropriate for the historic character of Livermore Street.”
Wastrom said he expects the HDC denial to be appealed. He said he was unsure if the condo association will seek to have the building removed from the National Register of Historic Places in an effort to obtain their Hapney-made fence.
“I think the fact that it’s on the national registry adds certain overlay,” he said. Wastrom also reminded that, “having a house on the registry is voluntary.”
Patrick Maisey’s home is a true labour of love. He built it himself, using locally sourced materials, in a prime spot at the end of a peninsula in the Tasman district that has been in his family for generations.
Not surprisingly, the place means an enormous amount to Maisey, his partner Christine Boswijk and their family. The house has grown gradually over time as work commitments and the mood allowed.
Today it’s a substantial build, able to house the blended family of 14 when they are all together at Christmas.
Design features include wrought iron around the balcony and doors opening to verandas and pockets of garden.
“We will start by picking our own homegrown cherries with the grandchildren on Christmas Eve and always gather around the long table to eat on Christmas Day,” says Christine Boswijk.
There are three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a massive living dining space and huge farmhouse kitchen. An adjacent structure of similar proportions allows the artist pair to pursue their individual passions – Christine in ceramics and sculpture and Patrick in the restoration of old cars.
The house has been developed in three stages including a second level with master bedroom and en suite.
“It’s perfect for Patrick,” says Boswijk. “He can get out of bed, look through the telescope and check on his boat moored at Mapua and then go to his workshop and the classic cars.”
While the house design has been Maisey’s preserve (with help from a draughtsman friend and then Nelson architect John Palmer), Boswijk had input too. She is quick to point out her walk- in wardrobe and dressing area in the angle of the roof pitch.
There’s plenty of quirky and distinctive detail to the property. A daughter’s former partner crafted steel porthole window frames and old wharf supports, hand positioned by Patrick and helpers using a block and tackle, form the main structure of the build. The clay exterior wall in the living area, added seven years ago, has a huge open fire and French doors in the new addition have created indoor-outdoor flow to the pond, water feature and view over the estuary.
“We have two planes- the vertical of the mountains and the horizontal of the sea. We have unbelievable light and life in this environment,” Boswijk says.
The house is about functionality – everything has to have a purpose and a use, so it doesn’t become a relic of the past. The house and surrounds continue to develop, a canvas for two artists.
Second Rejection for Hotel Cape Charles
Glass balcony walls at Hotel Cape Charles lend a modern look not in keeping with the Town’s historic character, says the Historic District Review Board.
By DORIE SOUTHERN
Cape Charles Historic District Review Board on November 20 rejected for the second time the balcony treatment at the newly renovated Hotel Cape Charles. The hotel is operating on a temporary occupancy certificate, and the Town will not grant a permanent certificate until the hotel meets the historic standards.
Board chairman Russ Dunton said the Board’s decision is final, and that the developer can either change the balconies to conform to the original approved plan or appeal the Board’s decision to Town Council. “Town Council is bound by the Historic District Guidelines just as we are,” he added.
Dunton emphasized that the Board did not want to be unreasonable. He also acknowledged that the developer had spent a lot of money on the building, and that many people like its modern look. “But it’s our job to make sure that historic properties in town maintain their character,” he said.
The Board did make some concessions to the building’s modern alterations: They allowed the glass on the third floor in place of a railing, and they accepted the modern light fixtures. They also agreed to overlook the developer’s failure to install decorative wrought iron on the ground floor as originally promised. But the Board could not accept the glass balconies on the second floor.
The issue was first raised when developer David Gammino attended the Board’s September 18 meeting and apologized for not sticking to the original plan as approved by the Board. At the time, Gammino blamed “a rapidly changing business plan” for not keeping the Town informed about architectural changes. At first, he intended only to do “a light remodel” of the old, defunct hotel.
But, “we came to the conclusion that reopening the hotel in its existing configuration would be a disservice to the Town of Cape Charles and limit the hotel’s demographic appeal,” he wrote. That’s when the budget soared from $500,000 for updates to over $2 million for a major overhaul.
In 2006, when the building was known as Cape Charles Hotel, owner Richard Wagner completed a renovation and received over $2 million historic tax credits. The hotel later went bankrupt and was sold after being stripped of its hardware and fixtures. Gammino bought the building – in complete disrepair — from the bank for $500,000. He did not request any historic tax credits.
The original plans submitted by Gammino, and approved by the Board, called for wrought-iron railings, and that is what the Board wants now.
At the September meeting, Gammino argued that wrought iron would ruin the look of the building as well as add tremendous expense. The glass panels had cost $60,000. “We don’t have the money to make that kind of change. We are $800,000 over budget already,” he said.
Gammino ultimately agreed to have his architect submit a revision, and that’s what the Board reviewed last week. The proposed modification was to add a wooden rail around the perimeter of each section of glass on the second-floor balconies.
That didn’t satisfy the Board. They want both vertical and horizontal railings, to offset the current open aspect of clear glass.
Cape Charles Town Planner Tom Bonadeo suggested that installing half a dozen black aluminum railings like these sold at Lowe’s could solve the problem at Hotel Cape Charles.
Town Planner Tom Bonadeo said that he looked on the Internet and found aluminum railings at Lowe’s for $66 for a six-foot section. Only six sections of railing would be needed, which would be a low-cost fix, he said.
In other business, the Board accepted plans for bathrooms at the southeast corner of Central Park. The restrooms were designed by California architectural firm Green Cottage to complement the sewer pumping station on the northeast corner of the park.
A $37,000 contract has been approved for Q S Construction to do the work. The building will feature tube skylights in place of windows. The bathrooms will not be heated and will be closed during the winter.
The Board approved the historic rehabilitation plans submitted for the house at 4 Tazewell Avenue. The plans were previously approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, making the house eligible for tax credits.
Chairman Dutton told the Wave that the Board does not try to second-guess the state DHR, which has very strict standards for historic rehabilitation.