Bellevue hardly tops anyone’s list of Nashville’s most ethnically adventurous neighborhoods. Only Brentwood seems more dedicated to the principle that there’s safety in numbers, provided those numbers are made up of people who, for the most part, look the same. (Belle Meade, being a world unto itself, and not a neighborhood, doesn’t count.)
So it’s a little surprising to find the sweetly subdued Alpha Bakery in the midst of that teeming commercial glob where Old Hickory Boulevard meets Highway 70, tucked away among flashy all-American landmarks such as Burger King, McDonald’s, and Captain D’s.
Alpha Bakery’s owners, T.T. Chen and his wife, Su, are Chinese by birth, but they spent about 25 years in Japan, where European-style bakeries are fairly common. (They were popularized there by immigrating or visiting Europeans after World War II.)
In Japan T.T. Chen worked as a journalist, and his job involved several trips to Nashville. When he and his wife decided to move here, they set their sights on opening a bakery like the ones they were accustomed to. They had gained their baking skills from several years of study at a school in Japan, and they were able to bring in some technical support from back home. Alpha Bakery opened Sept. 24, 1997.
Inside the small store, shoppers will be tempted by strikingly pretty pastries, cakes, breads, and desserts, artfully displayed in sparkling glass cases. Among the offerings are apple and pineapple Danish (made with fresh fruit, no less); plain, chocolate, and almond croissants; cream-filled French horns; cream-cheese claws; puffy dinner rolls; three-layered strawberry cakes; creamy cheesecakes; and a gorgeous pear tart.
Not quite so easily identified are the sesame-seed-topped au pan and the curry pan. In and of themselves, Alpha’s cases are a celebration of diversity, with a carroke roll cozied up to a tuna- salad sandwich, the pork kazu sandwich sharing shelf space with turkey and Swiss.
The curry pan ($1.25)an oblong roll stuffed with cooked potato, onion, and carrots; seasoned with curry powder; then deep-fried and lightly dusted with shredded coconutwas probably our favorite. It’s like a filled doughnut, but suitable for lunch. The au pan ($1.09) is a sweet, round roll, stuffed with mashed red beans. Asians frequently eat them with afternoon tea.
In the carroke roll ($1.25), dough is wrapped around a mix of ground beef, onion, and potato; the pork kazu sandwich ($3.98) is a thick slice of breaded and fried pork loin, served on bread with a topping of spicy-sweet red sauce, sliced cucumber, and red onion.
Alpha offers many other options for a quick and easy lunch or dinner. (There are a dozen or so small tables, or you can do take-out.) We especially liked the vegetable focaccia ($3.49), the onion-bacon roll ($1.25), the baked tuna roll with ham ($1.79), and the French chapeau with ham and potato ($1.25).
Among the sweetsall of which admirably avoided the cloying syrupiness so common hereaboutsthe pear tart was simply divine, the croissants were superior, and the cream-cheese claw was to die for. The small white cake, with sliced fresh strawberries between the layers, was as light as gossamer.
Several types of breads are available daily; the Chens estimate that Alpha is currently making about 50 different items.
After feasting on many of Alpha’s sweets, my group of mostly inner-looper tasters were a bit chagrined to find that the bakery is a tad beyond their geographical comfort zone. Bellevuans, on the other hand, should be thrilled to have such an exquisite treasure in their own backyard. It’s up to them to prove that the Chens made the right decision when they moved there.
Alpha Bakery is located at 7120 Hwy. 70 S. (673-8168). Open Tues.-Fri. 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Sat. 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Monday. Credit cards accepted.
Kien Giang was Nashville’s first Vietnamese restaurant, and until recently it was the only one. (I’ve heard allusions to another on Murfreesboro Road, but no one can ever seem to remember the name or the location.) Kien Giang has been loved by people with a passion for Vietnamese dishes and by people who simply have a predilection for good, cheap food. It’s short on atmospherethe floors are linoleum, the tables are topped with Formica, and there’s a karaoke machinebut for pho fans, it’s been the only game in town.
Now, New Saigon has opened, about a mile west of Kien Giang on Charlotte Pike, in the site formerly occupied by China Chef. New Saigon definitely has more stuffit has carpets, curtains, and padded seatsbut lacks the distinct flavorings and seasonings of Kien Giang.
New Saigon’s menu still carries a full range of Chinese food, but I stayed away from it, fearing it would be just as bad as all the other Chinese food in Nashville. Unfortunately, even the Vietnamese side of things turned out to be short on seasonings, flavor, and fiery heat.
As soon as you’re seated, you’re presented with a plate of green lettuce leaves, fresh-cut herbs, and little bowls of saucesthe vinegary nuoc cham and the peanutty nuoc leo. (There are several other sauce bottles on the table too, and you’ll need them.) Depending on what you order, you can dip it in the sauce, or you can wrap it in the lettuce and then spoon on some sauce. Or you can throw some sauce and some herbs into a bowl of broth.
Banh xeo is an egg-pancake-style dish with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts. New Saigon’s version was flimsy and soggy, but it improved somewhat when it was wrapped in lettuce and doused in sauce. The fresh spring rolls were of a generous size, but they could have used more cilantro and shrimp. The deep-fried spring rolls were tasty.
We sampled two phosthe most traditional of Vietnamese dishes. At New Saigon, a bowl of broth comes with rice noodles and either seafood, pork, beef, or a combination of the three. Bean sprouts and fresh herbs come on the side, along with a small dish of pulverized red chilies. The process is to add the sprouts and herbs to the broth and stir in some chilies. (Careful, they are hot.) Using chopsticks, you dip pieces of meat or fish in the sauce of your choice. Chopsticks are also used for slurping up noodles. (This is not something you want to try on a first date or when you’re in your Sunday best.) New Saigon’s pho broth was underseasoned, and the noodles were overcooked. The fire potwhich two can sharelacked flavor too.
At our table the winner was the deep-fried sweet-and-sour whole pompano. It came off the bone easily and dissolved on the tongue.
Prices are moderate at New Saigonlunch for eight with several of the gooey French-filtered coffees was $83.78but they’re higher than at Kien Giang.
All things considered, I’ll dance with the one who brought me.
New Saigon is located at 6317 Charlotte Pke., (615) 356-5653. Open weekdays 11 a.m.-9 p.m., weekends 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Major credit cards accepted.