Years before New York City had its golden age of Vietnamese food, London was already turning out contemporary, elevated takes on the traditional cuisine of Vietnam. Sure, the “pho mile” in Shoreditch was and will always be great, but it was pioneers like Vietnamese-Australian chef Damon Bui’s CôBa and Colin Tu’s Salvation in Noodles who taught Londoners that Vietnamese food could, in fact, be served in a modern setting, with more polished service.
But of all these new-school restaurants, I’ve always been particularly drawn to the family-run Bánh Bánh in Peckham, an up-and-coming neighborhood south of the river. Starting as a pop-up in the Bussey Building—a multi-concept space that houses an arts café and rooftop film club—the restaurant moved down the street into its current location in 2017. Since then, it’s become a fixture of its rapidly-evolving neighborhood, with a second, larger location opening in the culinary Mecca of Brixton earlier this year.
Unlike at older establishments, you won’t find ten pages worth of dishes at either of Bánh Bánh’s locations. Instead, the simple menu is tightly-focused, fine-tuning and perfecting both street snacks like pork skewers or banh mi sandwiches, and homestyle classics like thịt kho and cà ri gà. Then there’s the cocktails, which riff on ingredients found in Vietnam—think pandan misted over a pisco sour, a coconut rum negroni, or cognac soda laced with jackfruit cordial—for a fantastic sense of place.
“A lot of other Vietnamese restaurants in town have vast menus with reams and reams of choice—no one can make every single one of those dishes amazing, so you end up with food that is a bit hit and miss,” explains co-owner An Nguyen. “For our restaurant, we created a small and succinct menu of all our favourite dishes we ate growing up to ensure a deeper focus on quality rather than quantity.”
Nguyen, a 35-year-old consumer insights analyst who handles marketing and publicity for the restaurant part-time, is one of five owners. The other four are her siblings: Dung Nguyen (40) Luan Nguyen (33), Tien Nguyen (31), and Vi Nguyen (27). To make things work with so many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, each sibling has taken on one aspect of the business. Dung and Tien, for example, are directors, looking after operations and front-of-house respectively, while Chef Luan oversees the kitchen and Vi serves as head bar person.
“We all initially had day jobs, so we spent all our free time and weekends doing the pop-ups and working on our restaurant plan,” recalls Tien. “We had all worked in hospitality in the past, but setting up a restaurant was definitely a completely different beast. Once the restaurant started, I quit my job in the music industry and Dung left his job in retail, with the other joining us when we were up and running.”
But the family ethos of Bánh Bánh goes even beyond the five siblings. Their original inspiration for opening a restaurant at all was to pay homage to recipes passed down from their grandmother, who worked as a chef in Saigon over half a century ago.
“Our grandma was a chef in Saigon in the 50’s and her food was legendary.” Luan says. “When she moved over to live in London with us, she had a small tin chest filled with all her cooking equipment so she could cook for us. We basically had banquets every night growing up. So we were really spoiled and always said we’d love to open a restaurant to share her cooking with London.”
As Vietnamese food gains more global recognition, so have lesser-known dishes and regional specialties come to the forefront in London. At Bánh Bánh, for example, guests who are already familiar with phở are introduced central Vietnamese cooking with the excellent, spicy take on bún bò Huế . And with diners more open-minded and aware of this culinary diversity, the unfamiliarity of the dishes isn’t a deterrent, but rather a draw.
“Bánh khọt is definitely our most popular dish,” Vi reveals. “It’s not that common in Vietnamese restaurants to have this dish, and we present it in the pan with loads of herbs and salad so it’s not only really tasty and fresh—but also very Instagram-friendly!”
It’s in part that forward-thinking, digitally-savvy approach that defines the success of second-generation Vietnamese restaurateurs like the Nguyen siblings—those intermediaries who can bridge their parents’ and grandparents’ cultures with more global sensibilities. And for Chef Luan, the success has become a platform to further educate and guide diners to the vast diversity of Vietnamese dining—in region, in style, and in ambiance—waiting to be explored.
“People have been really receptive to a more upscale experience at our restaurant,” Luan says. “I think it just shows that Vietnamese food can be savored and enjoyed in the same way you would go for a good Italian or French restaurant. Also, Vietnamese food is different from region to region so the bún riêu you eat in Hanoi is different from the bún riêu you eat in Ho Chi Minh City—there isn’t a ‘correct’ way of making it!”
That’s true even from one Vietnamese family to another, each with its own recipe for certain dishes and way of doing things. If you’re Vietnamese, you know the pho you grew up with—and it’s unique to you and your family. Perhaps its that singularity that has helped the Nguyens work in harmony to achieve one creative vision, though, they admit, that’s not always the case.
“The best thing about working with family is that everyone says what they think, and the worst thing about working with family is […] also that everyone says what they think.” Tien jokes. “In all seriousness, the best thing is you are all a hundred percent committed to the same goal which makes the long hours easier. But it’s hard to switch off when we’re around each other, because as we always end up talking about work!”
Luckily, a long-awaited, well-deserved vacation is in store for the Nguyens. The siblings plan to take their first-ever joint trip back to Vietnam, taking along their parents, who helped get Bánh Bánh up and running in its first year. “We go to Vietnam a lot, but never quite together as the whole family,” Dung says. “We are planning to do one in 2020 with us five kids and our parents finally!”
Written by Dan Q. Dao
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