This content is also available in: Vietnamese
By: Christy Au-Yeung
From low-end street food to high-end eateries, Toronto has one of the most dynamic and diverse food scenes in the world. Over the years there have been a handful of Vietnamese establishments that have remained popular primarily within the Vietnamese-Canadian community. Culture Magazin sat down with three restaurant owners to find out how they are transforming the city’s Vietnamese cuisine with their fusion creations.
Banh Mi Boys – David, Peter, and Philip Chau
Conveniently located on Queen Street West and with two outlets on Yonge Street, Banh Mi Boys is the ultimate sandwich fix for busy budgeters. The popular fast food chain serves Vietnamese Asian-inspired subs, sandwiches, tacos, and steamed buns at an affordable price. For less than $8, you can get a fresh banh mi served with options such as grilled pork, kalbi beef, squid, duck confit, and five spice pork belly, topped with pickled carrots, cilantro, and cucumber.
“The way that people see banh mi should be really, really cheap,” says co-owner David Chau.
Growing up in Toronto’s Chinatown and working for their parents’ banh mi shop, David and his brothers Peter and Philip were influenced by Toronto’s vibrant food scene. At the end of 2011, they decided to open their first shop, but with a unique take on the traditional sandwich.
“It’s just the culture of Toronto that added a few twists to our menu compared to a traditional banh mi shop,” says Chau.
Every day during peak hours, the restaurants get crowded with long queues. “The most important thing to me is that we treat the customers properly, do an honest business and don’t cut corners. We still make everything – our own bread, meat, and sauces.”
By using the same bakery as their parents’ banh mi shop, the brothers have tapped into an existing business structure. They buy baguettes of their own formula and experiment with different ingredients.
According to Chau, grilled pork is the most popular item on the menu and it is made fresh every day. They use Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese ingredients and while Kalbi beef and five spice pork belly are Asian, duck confit and pulled pork add a Western influence.
“Everything that we will come up with is something that has influenced us in the past. It’s something we like to eat and something that we would like to see someone else eat,” he says.
“The inspiration really comes from what we think would be trendy and comforting. It’s a little bit of both ends of the spectrum in terms of old and new.”
Banh Mi Boys’ popularity is growing quickly and a new location will open at York University by the end of this year.
392 Queen St West, Toronto, ON M5V 2A9, 416 363 0588; banhmiboys.com
Vit Beo – David Huynh
During his trip, he was introduced to Vietnam’s diverse culinary history and culture. Reflecting on this experience, he realized that the scope of Vietnamese food available in Toronto is very narrow.
“It could be so much more. There’s a plethora of different ways to look at something as simple as a bowl of pho. A large majority of Vietnamese food is only represented by one specific region. It’s a shame,” he says.
Starting with a series of pop-ups, and hoping to move to a brick-and-mortar location by the end of the year, Huynh hopes to change the flavour of Vietnamese cuisine in Toronto. At his most recent pop-up at Mata Petisco Bar, he combined elements of South American cuisine with traditional Vietnamese dishes. His menu includes banana blossom salad, ceviche, tapioca cake in banana leaf, octopus rice in claypot, congee, tapioca noodle crab soup, and Vietnamese coffee.
“At each pop-up, I try to work with the restaurant for a couple of weeks and get to know their ingredients and what they do,” he says. “I try to adapt those things to what I think would be a good fit in terms of Vietnamese food.” The octopus rice in claypot, for instance, is a Vietnamese twist on the Portuguese-style octopus rice that Mata serves.
Most of Huynh’s culinary inspiration comes from watching his grandmother cook for his large family. “Dinner at our house was always very ceremonious,” he recalls. He refuses to call himself a chef and prefers being thought of a home cook. For him, home cooked meals are made with love and care.
Huynh has always gravitated towards the food and beverage industry. An early job was at Mcdonald’s before he went to work at restaurants such as Le Gourmand and Salt Wine Bar. Along the way, he picked up tips and cooking techniques.
One of his favourite items on the pop-up menu is the ceviche, a seafood dish decorated with dots of tiger milk fluid gel, sesame avocado puree, cucumber, fried shallot, lotus root chip, and micro coriander. The tiger milk fluid gel and sesame avocado puree were inspired by a former colleague at Le Gourmand who paired scallops with lemon fluid gel and avocado puree.
Huynh is currently planning another pop-up at Moto Snack Bar where he will combine elements of Italian and Vietnamese cuisine.
Mai Bistro – Manh Nguyen
Asian and Latin American cultures have a strong tradition of food sharing. Whether it’s a plate of tapas or pad thai, dishes are meant to be shared by the family or a group. Chef Manh Nguyen, owner of Mai Bistro, believes that sharing of food facilitates an enjoyable dining experience, which is the reason why he opened his Latin-Asian fusion restaurant with a menu that focuses on family-style dining.
“When you go out, it shouldn’t be just about feeding yourself, it’s an experience to have with friends and family. You go out and enjoy a conversation with each other,” he says.
Located in the heart of Etobicoke, Mai Bistro specializes in Latin-Asian tapas and tacos. Items such as Vietnamese style pork tacos and lamb curry spring rolls combine traditional flavours of Asia and Latin America to create bold and flavourful dishes. The restaurant also offers a vegetarian menu and daily specials. The menu changes regularly with the season.
In 1994, at the age of 24, Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee, was already the head chef in one of the biggest Japanese restaurants in Toronto, with more than 20 people working for him in the kitchen. His talents caught the attention of representatives from the InterContinental Hotels Group, who made him an offer to work as sous chef in Caracas, Venezuela.
During his five years living and travelling in South America, he noticed that Asian and Latin American cuisine share many common ingredients. Eventually, he picked up a few cooking tips from other chefs in the hotel and developed a new style of Asian-meets-Latino cooking.
Professionally trained in Japanese cuisine, Nguyen admires simple and clean aesthetics. His artfully arranged dishes often have a touch of Japanese food styling.
“The decorations are Japanese, the dishes use Latin food, but when you taste it, you know it’s Vietnamese,” he explains. The shrimp and crab ceviche with fresh salsa and avocado is a blend of Asian and Latin ingredients presented in a little bowl made of baked tortilla chips.
Toronto’s culinary scene is exploding and Nguyen is happy to be part of the revolution in flavours. “It’s exciting. We have different ethnic people and food everywhere. People are more willing to try new things now,” he says.
“My customers want finer things – not a big bowl of noodles. They want little things like tapas to enjoy themselves.”
Nguyen is hoping to open another restaurant in two or three years. “Family is very important to me. If we open another business now, my children will never see me,” he jokes.
4906 Dundas St W, Etobicoke, ON M9A 1B5, 647 343 3130; maibistro.com