Moving Vietnamese Food Forward

Three Vietnamese-American restaurateurs and chefs lend their perspectives

New America Media, Feature, Andrea Nguyen Posted: Jul 31, 2007

Editor's Note: Vietnamese cuisine has become mainstream in the geography of American taste and a new generation of young chefs are pushing the envelope to please an increasingly non-Vietnamese customer base.

At a Vietnamese cooking class that I recently taught, a student commented that the shrimp toast she was nibbling on needed something extra. Before I got the chance to suggest a sprinkling of salt, she’d made a pool of fish sauce, dipped the toast into the briny condiment, and deemed the morsel fabulous.

Her intuitive use of nuoc mam (fish sauce in Vietnamese) surprised me, mostly because she wasn’t Viet. I couldn’t have fathomed such a situation when my family arrived in America in 1975, when fish sauce wasn’t on any mainstream supermarket shelves. Nowadays, the discussion among foodies is which brand of nuoc mam is best. Bold, spicy flavors from all over the globe are in and the cuisine of Vietnam is hot. In fact, people I meet often proclaim, “I LOVE Vietnamese food!” and go on to describe it as fresh, delicious, and healthy — different than Chinese, Japanese, and Thai.

Chowhound and eGullet, two popular online forums, are peppered with opinions on Vietnamese pho noodle soup, banh mi sandwiches, and goi cuon rice paper hand rolls. Sriracha chili sauce, developed by a Vietnamese-American, is not just ubiquitous at Vietnamese restaurants in the States, but it is also sold any many markets. I recently encountered it alongside Heinz ketchup and Grey Poupon mustard at a popular surfer’s café in Santa Cruz, Calif., my hometown.

Indeed, what a difference 32 years makes. One way to measure the evolution of Vietnamese food in America is to ask some pros to weigh in.

Khanh Tran, the owner and chef of Saigon R and Mo’ Pho in Bergen County, New Jersey, remembers how difficult it was to run a Vietnamese restaurant in the early days. Her family emigrated to the United States in 1967, and in the mid-1970s, her parents opened Vietnam Restaurant, which was among the first of its kind in New York City. “There was nothing to work with then,” she says of the lack of ingredients.

When Tran opened Cuisine de Saigon in 1983 in the West Village, she was blessed by better ingredients and an influx of new Vietnamese refugees. “People needed work and they couldn’t speak English well so they did what they knew well -- cook. We had an all-women kitchen staff,” Tran remarks with certain wistfulness. “Ba Nam, Ba Sau, Ba Bay [‘Mrs. 5, Mrs. 6., Mrs. 7’ are common endearing Viet nicknames that reflect family birth order], I had all those ladies.”

As a measure of how Vietnamese food has become more mainstream, consider that movie actors and rock stars were among Tran’s clientele at Cuisine de Saigon whereas her current establishments mostly cater to non-Vietnamese baby boomers. She has classic pho noodle soup on the menu but also experiments a tad (e.g., mussels with wasabi ginger sauce) to keep her creative juices flowing. She tones down on the fish sauce a bit and provides vegan and gluten-free options too.

Tran sees a great resurgence in Viet food in America. “The older generation [of Vietnamese cooks] doesn’t want to be in the kitchen anymore. They’re tired,” she says. “Now there’s a new generation that is going to cooking school, going back to their roots and then creating modern dishes like spring rolls filled with raw tuna. We have a whole new cycle.”

In the last ten years, more Vietnamese-Americans have been opening crossover restaurants outside of Little Saigon enclaves. The Vietnamese culinary diaspora translates into hip joints in trendy neighborhoods like Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Hardcore Viet food fans debate how “real” the food is at such establishments, and there inevitably are flavor adjustments. Nevertheless, plenty of diners appreciate having greater access to Vietnamese flavors.Viet Kitchen

It’s a matter of educating and building trust with customers, says Eric Banh, who along with his sister Sophie, owns restaurants Monsoon and Baguette Box in Seattle. A thoughtful businessman with nearly 20 years of restaurant experience and a good palate, he understands his mostly non-Vietnamese clientele well. Banh respects and bridges old school traditions with modern, sophisticated American restaurant management.

For example, at upscale Monsoon, he offers a menu that changes with the seasons (right now he’s into stir-frying fresh squid with garlic chives), employs prime ingredients like wagyu beef (American Kobe) in his pho noodle soup, and braises Berkshire (Kurobuta) pork belly in fish sauce. At casual Baguette Box, the crisp bread may be filled with lemongrass skirt steak and the hand-cut fries are cooked in peanut oil.

“Typical Vietnamese restaurants play it safe with the same menus and a lot of restaurateurs are afraid of pushing bold flavors or new ideas,” Banh says. Monsoon, which has garnered national acclaim, has a loyal clientele. When Banh surveyed his regular customers a few years ago, he was surprised to find that they came to the restaurant not for Vietnamese food, but rather for Monsoon itself. His restaurant had overcome its “ethnic” label. It was simply good.

In Westminster, Calif., the epicenter of the Vietnamese community in America, Stephanie Dinh is plunging ahead at S Vietnamese Fine Dining, her two-year-old restaurant that serves both non-Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American diners, who comprise 75 and 25 percent of her clientele, respectively. A successful baker for 19 years, she loves hospitality, which inspired her to open the elegant and soulful S, located in a mainstream shopping center just beyond the heart of Little Saigon.

The initial years have been tough, but Dinh is on stable financial ground. Making fast money has not been her first priority. “My strategy is to concentrate on building the restaurant’s name and reputation,” she explains. “I think long-term.”

While there are modern riffs on Dinh’s menu, such as roasted lemongrass-encrusted lamb on broken rice, she sticks to traditional methods like steaming fresh banh cuon rice sheets to order and garnishing them with hand-chopped pork and freshly fried shallots. At S, she doesn’t use MSG (monosodium glutamate), and refuses to, despite a few old timers advising her to add the magic crystals to the pho soup broth to make it more authentic. Others complain about her upscale prices and some think her restaurant can’t be great because there aren’t more Vietnamese diners.

“People are looking for quality food, and I don’t cut corners,” she says. “Support from the [Vietnamese] community has been hard to get. But I love food and people, so I’m taking my chances and hope it works.”

Authenticity and purity are fleeting concepts when it comes to food, particularly that of Vietnam where people have always been pushing frontiers, incorporating new ideas, and making them their own. Here in America, it’s the optimism and passion of culinary professionals, diners, and home cooks that are moving Vietnamese cuisine forward. Without doubt, people are saying, “Bring it on!”

Andrea Nguyen is a food writer, cooking teacher and the author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors (Ten Speed Press, 2006). Contact her at andrea@vietworldkitchen.com or visit her website at http://www.vietworldkitchen.com

Related Articles:

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Reclaiming Tradition in Non-Traditional Vietnamese Families

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