Restaurant Review: Le Bleu Perfects the Vietnamese-Austin Mash-Up
This North Austin bánh mì shop keeps the focus on flavor
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., Oct. 5, 2018
Mon.-Sat., 11am-9pm; Sun., special events only
Like so many other successful local ventures, Le Bleu's origin story involves a food trailer. Lucky for Austin though, chef and owner Tebi Nguyen didn't close the original trailer, Saigon Le Vendeur, he just added a second location and then opened a North Shoal Creek brick-and-mortar. From tender pieces of grilled meat on French bread to addictive happy hour bites, the expanded menu keeps the focus on flavor.
Housed in a shopping center just off 183 North and Burnet Road, the space's simple design is inviting and casual, perfect for any combo of patrons – first dates, family night, or solo dining. Geometric patterns made of wood slats that match the modern flooring have been stained bright colors; lighting is housed in dark wicker baskets. Booths, four-top tables, and long bar-style communal seating can accommodate a large group, but even near closing time when the rush has waned, it's cozy and comfortable.
Just as the simplicity of the design makes the colors pop, Le Bleu's menu spotlights freshness with crisp vegetables and herbs, lean proteins, and expertly executed bread. Every single dish I ordered during two visits was not only tasty, but incredibly fresh. Seriously: not a brown-tinged or wilted leaf in sight. There's no shortage of Vietnamese food in town, but when it comes to Americans eating Vietnamese food, there are two main dishes: the bánh mì and the vermicelli bowl. Le Bleu's versions of each are absolutely delightful.
The classic bánh mì sandwich filling for meat-eaters (vegan and vegetarian options are available all over the menu) is juicy slices of grilled pork with julienned pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, jalapeño (with just the right amount of heat), and mini-bunches of cilantro, and these are some of the very best in town. I just wish the pickling flavor was more detectable. The thin spread of aïoli settles into the cracks of the perfectly toasted bread, and adds just enough soft flavor to complement the rigidity of the veggies and the hearty portion of meat. At $8 a pop, it's a huge win. Several other choices are available, including the O.G. – Vietnamese cold cuts – and two "not your typical" sandwiches, like the shaken rib eye with marinated cubed beef, watercress, seasonal radishes, and cherry tomatoes on that delicious bread.
The vermicelli bowl is another staple done right by this kitchen. Also known as the bún bowl, the portion at this little cafe is more than enough for one and plenty for two. The rice noodles are cooked just right (there's nothing worse than gooey noodles), and are topped with mixed greens, sprouts, pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, herbs, fried onion, toasted cashew, and chili-garlic sauce. I went with the garlic butter prawn version, a pleasing combination of richness and delicacy. As an aside for those unfamiliar, these bowls are not a saucy, goopy mess of hodgepodge ingredients – there is no goulash here. The bún bowls' sauce is relegated to the drippings from the proteins and the vibrant crudités (hoisin and sriracha are available, too), resulting in a meal that feels both decadent and incredibly healthy.
The appetizer game is strong here, too. With shredded green mango and papaya, poached shrimp, pork belly, and herbs paired with fried shallots, toasted cashews, and bits of cracker, the mango salad makes a helluva starter, especially when it's washed down with a local draft brew. There's always some confusion when it comes to spring, summer, and fried rolls because the terms are loosely defined, but the staff here is incredibly warm and knowledgeable, so just ask. Here, the summer rolls (my favorite) are rice paper-wrapped and stuffed with the usual suspects (vermicelli, lettuce, herbs, cucumber), several plump shrimp, and a bonus rectangle of pork belly, served with a peanut-cashew dipping sauce. And the fried eggrolls are the ones you're thinking of, with finely ground pork, taro, and wood ear mushroom, fried to golden perfection and then cut on the bias; the grilled pork patty summer rolls land somewhere in between.
If you're as much a fan of Uchiko's brussels sprouts as I am (along with the countless fans on the internet who tried to replicate the recipe), you'll be thrilled to know that Le Bleu's happy hour runs every day 4-8pm, and all day on Saturday, and includes a very similar dish for only $4. That, and the draft beers are $1 off. We also enjoyed the tempura-battered calamari rings served with onions and fresh jalapeño slices and drizzled with a light sweet-and-sour vinaigrette. But it's those dangerously tasty crispy sprouts – sweet, savory, and a tad bit zesty – that seared a memory. (I dipped my bánh mì into the leftover sauce and almost shed a tear when the bowl was empty. OK, both bowls.) While I enjoyed the passion fruit chicken wings' flavor – a bright passion fruit garlic-chili sauce and lovely slices of watermelon radish from Johnson's Backyard Garden – the texture was a bit gummy for my taste. On my second visit, the kitchen had 86'd the peppercorn chicken nuggets and the shishito peppers, but going back to try these is reason enough to return.
At the risk of being overly effusive about this little spot, there's really not much at all to complain about. I suppose it just goes to show that Mom was right: Less is more, and not everything requires cheese.
Le Bleu9070 Research #303
Mon.-Sat., 11am-9pm; Sun., closed