Vietnamese people are nationalistic in so many ways, including in their food. More than mere sustenance, pho and banh mi are national pride. But as the country becomes more and more welcoming of foreign influences, restaurants offering international cuisines dotting major cities have become an important part of the country’s endeavor for globalization.
For Vietnamese American Kane Ho, building an American-style barbecue restaurant was not just a way to remember his childhood; but to share “something different with a focus on quality products and excellent service that we were familiar with.” Kane and his wife opened a deli-style cafe in 2015 in Nha Trang, and then introduced the barbecue concept in 2016. LIVIN Barbecue, as it’s now called, serve beef brisket, beef ribs, pulled pork, chicken, and sausages — smoked from two to 12 hours on a woodfire to bring out their natural flavors.
Their tender-juicy meats are well-loved by expats and foreign tourists. But Kane said their priority has always been to “improve and grow” with the Vietnamese.
The pandemic has also allowed them to focus more on the locals in Nha Trang, with Vietnamese customers now accounting for about 60-70% of the people they serve daily.
“With a young demographic, a rising economy, trend/popularity with social media; Vietnamese people seem to be more open and eager than ever to try new cuisines,” said Kane.
It also helps, he said, that both Vietnamese and American-style barbecues use lots of herbs, sauces, and side vegetables, so the setup is similar in some ways.
“We hope that our customers appreciate the time and details we put into each dish,” he added.
Just about 350 meters from Kane’s restaurant is La Cala, an authentic Italian restaurant that opened in 2019. It was a dream for Salvatore Spinali and Nicola D’alesio to bring a “taste of home” to a city they loved since the first time they visited eight years ago.
“In 2019, we found what we believed was the right spot and opportunity to start the business, which can be seen flourishing today,” said Salvatore. From pizzas to pasta, true-Italian flavor and aroma waft out from the restaurant.
Fresh ingredients such as tomatoes and vegetables are sourced from Da Lat, while seafood is from Nha Trang, explained Nicola. The Parmigiana, baked layers of cheese, eggplant, and tomato sauce, is the best-seller, the couple said. But seafood and fish-based dishes, as well as the Ravioli di Gamberi are well-loved.
“This makes us very proud because we focus a lot on spreading the Italian way to cook and serve food.”
The number of their Vietnamese regulars is increasing by the day, thanks to the “general interest in the foreign cuisines and different dining experiences among Vietnamese.” In fact, La Cala is set to open its first branch in Saigon’s bustling Thao Dien ward in the coming weeks.
“We believe that Vietnamese are very traditional and very fond of their cuisine, however, they are also becoming very curious to experience different tastes. This is unquestionably a peculiar aspect for the growth of any foreigner restaurant in Vietnam, and we believe it is an aspect growing even more in the years to come.”
While there aren’t any recent specific data on the number of foreign restaurants across Vietnam, a report from the Ministry of Industry and Trade in 2017 stated that there were 184 franchising deals of foreign brands in Vietnam, 71 of which were in food and beverage. The opening of Vietnam’s 15oth Jollibee store — a Filipino fast-food chain — in March is more than enough proof of Vietnamese’ growing love for global cuisines. American fast-food brands McDonald’s and Burger King continue to spoil Vietnamese with their signature burgers and chicken meals.
Right price for the right quality
With a cup of iced coffee only about VND15,000 (0.65 USD) and a piece of banh mi cha ca for VND20,000 (0.86 USD), Vietnam is regarded to have one of the cheapest food and drinks, as well as the general cost of living. This is most likely the reason many Vietnamese love eating out, and why it’s one of the best destinations for expats.
But international restaurants have to keep their prices a little higher, considering all the expenses that come with opening a business in a foreign land. The renting and importing of ingredients from the US or Europe are not cheap, especially if these F&B businesses want to offer only authentic flavors and culinary experiences to their patrons.
This is what Eddie’s New York Diner & Deli, one of the most popular American diners in Saigon, believes in. Its Thao Dien branch opened four years ago. The area is a hotbed for English-speaking expats, the perfect customers for an American deli. But Eddie’s handcrafted milkshakes, Reubens, and all-day breakfast offerings have become a favorite among Vietnamese diners. The restaurant grew more popular that it opened another branch in District 1 last year.
“We were finding that our Vietnamese guests were traveling from around the city to come to Eddies in District 2, traveling up to 1 hour. But it was just too far away for many to visit often. We wanted to make it more convenient for them,” said Miss Hằng.
With a mission to provide an authentically American dining experience in Vietnam, both in terms of food and drinks and hospitality, Eddie’s has not adjusted any of its food offerings to meet local tastes since its “food already fit the Vietnamese palate quite well.”
Today, Eddie’s serves up to a thousand customers a week, mostly Vietnamese from all age ranges, from teenage adults bringing their parents and grandparents to the restaurant. “We have even seen some of our more elderly customers coming back with their friends. That for us is true success.”
Eddies’ regular milkshakes (which come in 30 flavors) cost VND99,000 (4.26 USD), while its Deli-size pastrami Reuben costs VND349,000 (15 USD).
“I think a restaurant like ours may not be in the price range for every type of customer. However, we really work hard to have a lot of different price points,” she added. For example, a stack of three pancakes, which costs VND99,000, can be easily shared by two people.
“We are also very focused on making sure to provide real value for our guests. Vietnamese are generally very willing to pay the right price for the right quality,” Miss Hằng proudly said. “The key to having a solid Vietnamese customer base is to represent value.”