When Vicky Bui was growing up in Saigon, her parents built a house next door to their restaurant, so close that her room had a view of the kitchen window and by extension, a view of her future.
That restaurant’s still in business in Saigon after 27 years, named Berni in honor of the rabbit mascot of the European soccer championships Bui’s dad follows.
Two years ago, their grown children started their own Berni in San Antonio, where Bui’s red chef’s hat can be seen just above the kitchen’s half-wall, moving with speed and purpose to re-create the food she grew up eating in Vietnam.
This sunlit room on Wurzbach Road has been a Chinese restaurant and a Tex-Mex place, but Bui and her family revamped the decor with wood and glass and light, a light that gives the shop an urban lunch-counter feel and leaves nowhere for the food to hide.
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And this is food with nothing to hide, a fresh and bright interpretation of Vietnamese standards. Berni’s No. 1 Phở is aroma therapy in a bowl, an invitation to breathe the steam in contemplation of broth as clear as consommé holding a cornucopia of beef — brisket, tendon, tripe and sliced meatballs — rendered as tan as freshly-sanded wood. It’s a bowl so clean and vibrant you might miss the funky off-notes of your favorite phở house.
Berni Vietnamese Restaurant
8742 Wurzbach Road, 210-485-5982, Facebook: Berni Vietnamese Restaurant
Quick bite: Family-run cafe in a bright, contemporary space specializing in fresh renditions of traditional bún, phở and other Vietnamese specialties.
Hit: Bún bò Huế, phở, fish balls
Miss: Pork bánh mì, vermicelli bowl
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Price range: Appetizers, $2.95-$14.95; sandwiches, $6.95; salad bowls, $8.95-$12.95; phở, $6.95-$16.95; vermicelli bowls, $8.95-$14.95; specialty entrees, $8.95-$12.95.
★★★★ Superior. Can compete nationally.
★★★ Excellent. One of the best restaurants in the city.
★ Good. A restaurant that we recommend.
(no stars) We cannot recommend this restaurant at this time.
Express-News dining critics pay for all meals.
Bún bò Huế fulfills the desire for something stronger, a soup with all the full, fresh, aromatic qualities of phở turned up to 11 with chili oil heat that infuses beef shank, pork hock and pork patty sliced thin as lunchmeat. Bui’s 24-hour beef bone stock brings depth and clarity to both dishes.
Burrito-sized soft spring rolls carry the expected payload of noodles, Romaine, carrots and herbs, but all of it hyper-fresh, with long, thin fillets of chicken seared with grill-striped purpose but not turned into jerky. By more playful snack-food contrast, Vietnamese eggrolls bring sharp rice-paper crunch over pork, taro and mushroom, chopped into nuggets and served with salad and fish sauce.
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The shop’s most disciplined exercise in restraint is a tomato-laced noodle soup called bún riêu, seasoned with crumbled cakes of egg, dried shrimp and crab paste. Think for a minute how many ways that could drift unfortunately seaward. For Bui, it’s a clean, acidic tribute to her homeland, tempered with sliced pork, fried shallots and tomato wedges, with the ocean coming through in light breezes rather than waves.
Breezy freshness doesn’t bring the same flattery to Berni’s bún chả, the vermicelli bowl most of us are familiar with, with noodles over a garden of lettuce, carrots, bean sprouts and herbs, waiting for charcoal-broiled pork and a drench of fish sauce. All the elements are there, but the pork is too civil for its own good, a soft stir-fry rather than the hard sear that brings a satisfying balance of crunch and primal fatty char. The shop’s grilled pork bánh mì holds that same genteel line, kept further in check by a soft sandwich roll rather than the tough-love crunch and chew of a proper Vietnamese-style baguette.
But the cook who’d apply the devil’s good right hand to pork would surely make a wreck of cá kho tộ, the high-wire act of catfish braised in caramelized fish sauce. In Bui’s hands, the bone-in fish stays flaked and opalescent under a shell as light and sweet as crème brûlée. One of Berni’s most telling fish adventures is a $2.95 skewer of fish balls — not just a mince of fish entombed in breading, but rather full pearled nuggets of swai with a batter so delicate you’d never know a deep fryer was involved.
In the absence of alcohol, there’s room for sweet and creamy Vietnamese coffee and not-so-Vietnamese boba tea with tapioca pearls. And there’s room for the hospitality of a family who’s been in the business for two generations now, the hospitality of a sweet tapioca dessert on the house and a complementary light soup to start, a preview of Berni’s welcome lighter touch.
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