Breaking the barrier between Western-style restaurants and the local Vietnamese population that will provide them with longevity. Elijah Ferrian explores what’s happening with the explosion in the food and beverage scene in Vietnam. Photos by Vinh Dao.
There’s something changing in the gastronomical landscape of Vietnam. It’s no secret that Ho Chi Minh City is a culinary playground for locals and foreigners alike. The majority of folks that venture out to the bustling street food strips and newly established brick and mortar neighbourhood joints are pleased not only with the exponential variety, but with the ability to sit down with a rack of authentic American barbecue ribs, a perfectly constructed burger, the ambience of the lunch rush at a European-style cafe, or a liquid artistic expression in the form of a craft cocktail. It allows foreigners and expats to bask in a river of nostalgic glee, sure, but that’s not what’s interesting about this trend. The real story here is how these establishments are taking off with the local Vietnamese population at break-neck speed, and how the restaurants themselves are helping the transition.
Vietnam has been transitioning into a market-based economy since the late 1980s. It has been on an ever-increasing acceleration pattern since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2007, and one of the biggest benefactors of this rapid growth has been the food and beverage sector. A perfect maelstrom of growing tourist revenue, increase in household disposable income, and a burgeoning middle class, has left the average local with more culinary opportunities than ever. With more urbanisation, busier lifestyles, and consistent growth of full-service restaurants year after year, Vietnam now has a healthy appetite for variety.
“Basically, I came here for this new opportunity to bring American food culture to Vietnam,” says Jake Pulkrabek. “I haven’t really seen the type of American-style restaurants I tried to emulate when I first came here in November of last year.”
Pulkrabek is from a small town in Northern Minnesota, USA. He just opened up his restaurant, Jake’s BBQ, at 50 Pasteur Street. He’s lived in different parts of Asia for years, cooking his homestyle comfort food, and has always enjoyed a warm response to his style and concept, which is like walking into a little slice of Midwestern Americana. In fact, when you sit down at Jake’s you’d be hard pressed to remember that you were sitting in Ho Chi Minh City at all. It’s a blast from some other time. He moved to Vietnam for a change of pace, and because a lot of his regulars at the old location in southern China were constantly telling him to make the move further south because of the growth and infrastructure in the booming Vietnamese economy.
“This city is an entrepreneur’s dream. It’s a great representation of what Vietnam is about, and America as well.”
On the other side of the spectrum in this American barbecue trend are the powerhouse jokesters over at Quan Ut Ut. Tim Scott, one of the three major partners that started this restaurant group, all hailing from either Australia or the United States, sat down with me at their ‘Bacontainer’ location on the Binh Thanh side of the Thi Nghi canal.
“There were American barbecue places before us that tended to be darker, dingier, and had a male-centric vibe to them,” says Scott. “Nobody had tried doing a barbecue for Vietnamese. We tried to do a lot of things to not make it so alien to Vietnamese people, and it has just worked out amazingly.”
It’s apparent as I sip an ice water while sitting at a long, sturdy wooden picnic table: they have taken the Vietnamese style of dining out in large groups, and injected it with a healthy dose of smoked meat and campy humour.
“One of the things that makes us interesting for Vietnamese locals is that we are not afraid to take weird risks; bacon ice cream, odd artwork on the walls like the Last Supper of man-pigs cannibalising themselves, or the hot dogs named after adult entertainment stars. We constantly have this edge”, Scott laughs.
They obviously put a lot of thought into how the Vietnamese enjoy eating out with family and friends. The beer flows freely, and the seating is open-aired with a giant tent canopy top. It feels like you’re at a friend’s home in Texas for a good, old-fashioned cookout. That’s exactly how Scott and company wanted it to feel, but with an attention to detail that is respectful and observant of Vietnamese cultural norms.
“All of our restaurants are open-aired. No doors. Menus are in Vietnamese. We set the tables up neutrally, because if you are not comfortable with a knife and fork, then you should be free to set up the table in your own way.”
This is the trend I keep running into while interviewing the owners of these phenomenal restaurants: they find ways to create comfortable experiences for the local population by introducing something foreign with a gentle touch that makes the unfamiliarity the point of interest, and further utilise this tactic as the impetus to get a potential customer to walk in the door of an otherwise bizarre and potentially alienating cross-cultural experience.
Much of this is accomplished with how the food is served, as Pulkrabek explains: “That’s why it’s very important that I give big portions.The portion size is something I wanted to make big, so that a family can come in and order two items and it can feed three or four people. When you order a half rack of ribs, it’s an actual half rack of ribs; it can feed two people, easily. You can take one meal and split it up. That’s how Asian cultures operate. Sharing is how dining is done, and I wanted to showcase that we do that in America as well.”
“Since (we) started [nearly 12 years ago] she wanted to get this sharing idea going.” Adrian “Scotty” Scott, head chef at longstanding District 2 restaurant The Deck, is recalling the early days of what is now a riverside institution, when owner Anna Craven expressed a clear desire from day one to allow guests to graze through the menu, sharing little bits from here and there while spending the entire day at the restaurant. It’s an ethos they’ve catered to more and more in recent years. “All of our starters are in two to four helpings,” he adds. “We also do a three-tier priced tasting menu. This allows us to split up a lot of great menu items into more portions. It’s actually easier for the kitchen, and more people get to try a better variety of what we love to do here.”
The Deck has been busy with a majority of Vietnamese patrons for years, so it’s not even that they need to make a move like this, it’s that they want to. “The more that people are getting the chances to try a wider variety of food, the more people are getting really into it. Opening up new food to this country is received so well, and it’s so fun to do. They have such good product here. Phu Quoc squid, is one of the best I’ve ever tried.”
This brings us to the aspect that I find to be most exciting for the future of Vietnam and food: ingredients. Fresh, high quality, natural ingredients. I stopped by D1 destination eatery Soul Burger to talk to owner Gabe Boyer about the importance of what’s going in to Saigon’s food.
“You really try to design the burger for the eater,” explains Boyer, “fine tuning every patty. We take a lot of pride in the meat and the bun, right down to the salt and pepper. We toast and dry Vietnamese sea salt, and import Phu Quoc peppercorns. We choose to import US beef even though Australian beef is cheaper. Just because it’s slightly better. We make everything in-house except for the ketchup on the table. We craft a luxury product. Everything is thought about to the finest detail.”
These guys are obsessive not just about creating a perfect burger, but about sourcing and utilising the best possible ingredients at every step of the process, and they’re not the only ones with this mentality.
Farm to Table
Tim Scott emphatically speaks over the bustle of his restaurant as Ut Ut prepares for its evening service: “There are two things happening at the moment. One is seeing these places and thinking it’s really easy to [start a restaurant], and the other is that there’s a really big movement over the last two years for high quality, made-from-scratch products. A great example is [Pizza] 4P’s. Having their own farms, growing their own vegetables, offering consumers access to their distribution – it’s a really great sign for the future, and they’re creating a model to follow.”
“Five years ago the vast majority of Vietnamese food was, ‘how do you take the cheapest ingredients possible and turn them into something flavourful?’ Turning something cheap into something great. Now, what if we take really good ingredients and do the same thing?”
The access to fresh, high-quality ingredients, and the increasing interest in their utilisation, can only make the food better, as well as strengthening ties between the rural Vietnamese farmers and the urban companies looking to buy their products. It seems like a potential win-win situation.
The mention of Pizza 4P’s online farm-to-table shop carries the conversation into the technological territory that many of these stories find themselves deeply indebted to.
The Next Generation
Martijn Vermaire and his business partner Sander Smits have an unparalleled social media presence for their beautiful North-European influenced establishment, Cafe Restaurant HCMC, on Calmette Street in District 1. This part of the restaurant game is integral to keeping up with the millennial crowd always looking for the next hip spot to lounge and sip on a cocktail, or host a meeting over a divine lunch service.
“We do a ‘daily fresh’ post of our lovely dishes on Facebook,” explains Vermaire, “a nice photo and brief description. We have the Albert Calmette cocktail posts we run on Instragram. Finally, we feature our extraordinary chef Steven Long on our YouTube cooking channel for Western cooking – steaks, pasta, etc. We have a Vietnamese chef teaching Western cooking and people are watching the videos. It’s great to see.”
Vermaire scrolls through the various social media profiles on his iPhone. It’s impressive, and an extremely progressive way to stay ahead, or at least on the curve in a city that has seemingly dozens of restaurants opening each month.
“You look at Bangkok, Thailand… there’s approximately 10,000 restaurants there,” he continues. “Ho Chi Minh City has somewhere around 2,000. I think you look at Thailand to see where Vietnam is potentially headed. There’s so much growth possible. I think it’s going to stay booming. I do hope that the quality stays. Bad restaurants will disappear. You have all these great places coming out in District 2. I just foresee more and more growth.”
Much of that growth rests on the shoulders of the future generation of restaurant goers – the younger generation that studies or lives abroad, and comes back to Vietnam hoping to start a business, or dine at a restaurant that allows them to recapture experiences they’ve had in other countries. This multiculturalism is lending a lot to this new, genuine interest being shown for different food and beverage. A lot of these trends aren’t dissimilar to what has happened in mid-size developing cities in the United States and other Western nations.
There’s a style and level of service that is being imported as well, and this is really where the experience for either Vietnamese local, or foreign expat pivots to either a positive one, or not. There’s so much growth happening in this country, and in this city, that getting a sincere greeting from a restaurant owner may seem like it’s out of place to expect at this stage in the game. But that kind of genuine attention to the guest experience is exactly the factor that separates the new establishment hoping to build itself into a longstanding fixture on a busy street corner, from the average flash in the pan that never seems to make a name for itself.
Pulkrabek, the small-town Minnesota native frames it best: “Barbecue brings people together. It brings the community together. Slow cooked pork, or beef.. put it on a bun, and everyone brings their own food and gets together. I had big shoes to fill. I’m on a popular street taking over the space of a popular restaurant. I have to give one-hundred-and-ten percent every day because people have been coming here for ages. It’s my job to greet them at the door and give them the best meal they’ve ever had. Impressing people with the food is so fun. This concept has worked for over ten years, and I’m excited to bring it to Vietnam.”