June 13, 2024


World's finest Food

Philly’s new wave of Vietnamese restaurants is led by a younger generation

You can get a cilantro-laced breakfast banh mi along with your pancakes at the Breakfast Den on South Street. You can sip a frothy bac xiu latte made with Vietnamese espresso roasted on site at the charming new Càphê Roasters in Harrowgate. Or how about Philadelphia’s most coveted bowl of chicken pho?

That legendary soup from Pho Ga Thanh Thanh moved from its longtime Kensington storefront last year to a larger space on the bustling Southeast Asian corridor of Washington Avenue. It’s just the first stop, though, in what second-generation owner Elizabeth Thanh Nguyen says will be a major expansion: “My grand plan is to be nationwide.”

The plan is grand, indeed, for a place that existed its first 20 years as a bare-bones nook on Kensington Avenue serving essentially one thinga luminous pho ga fragrant with star anise and family secrets. Nguyen is one of several second-generation Americans ready to take the torch from parents who fled Southeast Asia decades ago, built new lives around restaurants, and are now ready to retire.

“The kids tend to be more educated so they want to bring a little twist to how we should modernize the business,” said Nguyen, who earned an MBA from Temple’s Fox School of Business.

Driven by the younger generation, the Vietnamese-inspired offerings in Philadelphia have never been more dynamic as they balance a respect for family traditions with creativity, and the influences of their American upbringing.

“I’m Vietnamese, but I’m also American, so why can’t I have a bowl of pho and some great chicken wings at the same restaurant?” asked Andrew Dinh Vo, who, in fact, offers both at Cafe Nhan, the cozy restaurant he co-owns with his mother Nhan Vo on West Passyunk Avenue.

Huyen “Thai” Dinh, whose Breakfast Den brunch plates combine multiple cultures, agrees: “There’s a lot about Vietnamese food that people (in Philadelphia) don’t know yet. My generation wants to make it a thing.”

Here are several new Vietnamese restaurant projects that have sparked a new wave in Philadelphia.

Thu Pham says her generation is willing to take risks out of necessity: “After this year of anti-Asian sentiment, we need to collaborate as a community to uplift our stories and make known the different foods we grew up with.” And the 28-year-old Olney native, a daughter of immigrants, has led by example. She launched Càphê Roasters in 2018 as one of the first specialty roasters in America to focus on Vietnamese-style coffees. The results have been impressive, featuring an espresso blend that layers Vietnamese robusta and Thai arabica beans to evoke smoky, peanutty and bittersweet-chocolate notes.

She took another big leap last October with partners Raymond John and Abraham Kwon by opening a beautiful cafe in Harrowgate. The airy space shines like a welcoming beacon beside the Market-Frankford El at J Street and Kensington Avenue, and it’s the ideal place to experience the many ways these coffees can be enjoyed, from traditional phin-dripped brews sweetened with condensed milk to custard-enriched egg coffee or trendy espresso-yuzu tonic. The addition of talented chef Jacob Trinh (Vernick Fish; Kampar Kitchen) is another reason Càphê has become a community hub to linger over inventive plates, from comforting rice porridge infused with squash, to egg sandwiches garnished with Trinh’s XO sauce or pho-spiced tomatoes, great banh mi and “brekkie tacos” with eggs, mung bean spread and five-spice salsa. Càphê Roasters, 3400 J St. G1, 215-690-1268; capheroasters.com

Chef Thanh Nguyen and husband, Chris Nguyen, opened one of my favorite new restaurants in 2021 with Gabriella’s Vietnam, an East Passyunk homage to contemporary dishes from her native Saigon rarely seen in local Vietnamese restaurants. I loved her cooking so much — the vermicelli platter laden with pork patties and blood sausage; tiny dishes of water fern dumplings; crispy mini-bánh xèo crepes — I named her Philly’s rising star chef of the year.

A recent revisit proved Nguyen, who also owns Melody’s Grillhouse in Ambler, has not stopped exploring. The winter menu features bubbling hot pots full of tamarind-tanged broth, warming bowls of cháo gà rice porridge topped with shredded ginger and fistfuls of plump shrimp. There are little muffin-shaped coconut batter cakes called bành khot whose crispy edges and creamy centers dabbed with shrimp are a savory, textural sensation. But the showstopper was the winter flounder, a deep-fried hunk of whole fish slashed into vents for easy plucking served bánh hỏi-style with pressed vermicelli cakes, herbs and rice paper to wrap into rolls. It’s a dish befitting the daughter of a seafood market family. And lucky us: Thanh say she has two more restaurant concepts planned to open this year. Gabriella’s Vietnam, 1837 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19148, 272-888-3298; gabriellasasian.com

Huyen “Thai” Dinh used to hate working the griddle as a 15-year-old making cheesesteaks and breakfast sandwiches at her mother’s corner deli in West Philadelphia. “I wanted to find my own path as a teenager,” she said, acknowledging the irony.

That’s because two decades later, after a degree in fashion followed by years in California as a restaurant manager, Dinh is back in Philly — working a griddle — “and I love it.” Yes, she’s making breakfast sandwiches again. But it’s at her own place, the Breakfast Den, a charming corner room in Graduate Hospital that’s built on the good brunch vibes of the former Little Spoon. And the menu reflects Dinh’s dual passions for family traditions and American breakfast, often melding the two.

You can get chocolate-banana pancakes with real maple syrup, but also a cháo gà porridge with crispy chicken skin and a soft boiled egg. There’s a roll-busting banh mi Op La stuffed runny eggs, sausage patties, bacon and eggplant pâté, as well as a banh mi cheesesteak stuffed with house pickles, Viet aioli and herbs. I covet the breakfast rice bowls topped with crispy pork belly. But also the Thit Ko hash of Vietnamese pulled pork with sunnyside up eggs, cheddar and potatoes. “I knew Philly was missing something,” says Dinh. “So I wanted to open something fun.” Brunch mission accomplished. The Breakfast Den, 1500 South St., 267-758-6008; thebreakfastden.com

Growing up in Atlantic City, Andrew Dinh Vo took regular weekend trips to Washington Avenue with his mom, Nhan Vo, to eat at Café Diem, long Philly’s prime destination for hearty bún bò Huế, a spicy lemongrass soup traditional to Vo’s native Central Vietnam. So when Vo opened her own place on West Passyunk Avenue in 2015, then joined by Andrew for an expansion in 2017, bún bò Huế was a naturally focus. Their rendition — darker, spicier and funkier from shrimp paste than Diem’s still excellent OG bowl — has been a steady draw, especially for the dac biet version loaded up with the works of brisket, meaty pig’s foot and pig’s blood cubes that add unique texture and absorb the broth in a way that amplifies the soup’s boldness.

Cafe Nhan’s cozy little dining room has become our go-to neighborhood spot for traditional favorites, from flavorful pho (try it with tender short rib), to outstaning banh mi (with house-cured pork belly) and homestyle dishes like chicken curry, loose-packed meatballs in tangy gravy and a lemongrass-braised chicken that Andrew coveted from childhood memories then learned from his mom as he become the chef. The menu’s sleeper hit, meanwhile, is one of his creations: fish sauce-brined chicken wings that get fried to a Super Bowl-worthy crisp. Cafe Nhan, 1606 W. Passyunk Ave., 215) 551-2407; cafenhanphilly.com

There may be no dish in Philadelphia more intense with chicken essence than the pho ga made famous by Hoa Le, a woman so renowned for the soup at her former storefront on Kensington Avenue, she simply became known over two decades there as “Chicken Lady.” Even among family.

“My kids call her ‘Chicken Grandma,’” says daughter, Elizabeth Nguyen. “And people call me ‘Chicken Girl.’”

Nguyen wears the title with pride, especially since taking over two years ago and driving the family’s move to Washington Avenue, where Thanh Thanh’s soup now has exposure to a wider audience, including busloads of Vietnamese visitors from across the tri-state region shopping the avenue’s plazas: “This is my parents’ wildest dreams.”

The family may still reopen the Kensington location, Nguyen says. But the new space has twice the seating and takes credit cards. (Progress!) And the recipe hasn’t changed, with 250 gallons of soup each day patiently stewed from fresh-killed chickens that devotees often order whole on the side, complete with their gently poached innards, prized for the various textures and nuanced flavors they add. Whether you go whole bird or request boneless white meat only, do not miss Thanh Thanh’s signature dip, a dish of lime juice and black pepper with sliced habaneros and lime leaves that lends each bite of meat a special zing. Pho Ga Thanh Thanh, 1100 Washington Ave., 215-427-0483; phochickenthanhthanh.com

I’ve really missed convenient access to a wide menu of traditional Vietnamese favorites on the west side of Broad Street ever since the Hoa Binh Plaza was closed in anticipation of a new development. (Boo!) But Viet Bistro has begun to fill that void nicely since opening near Graduate Hospital in late October. The space, lightly renovated from its days as a forgettable Chinese takeout spot, remains utilitarian. But owner An “Andy” Nguyen’s kitchen, with veteran cooks from his family’s other restaurant near Washington Avenue, Cafe Thah Truc (or his aunt Huong Lan Nyugen’s former places, Huong Tram and Mekong River), has been a pleasant surprise.

The menu delivers all the basics well, from aromatic pho with an option for filet mignon (”only the best ingredients!” says Nguyen) to anything with pork. The sweet and savory barbecue pork for the banh mi, made to his aunt’s recipe, is excellent. But I especially loved the broken rice platter with a lemongrass marinated pork chop and pork skin shaved into fine translucent noodles. At $12 a plate (on a menu that tops out at $18 for seafood), you’d be hard pressed to find a better flavor value in the neighborhood. Viet Bistro, 1640 South St., 215-298-9990. Only online presence is Yelp.

Kim Dieu spent eight years looking for the space that became Mi ‘N Tea, the stylish banh mi and bubble tea shop that she opened in Manayunk with brother, Troy Dieu, 31, as a place for their parents, Kim Tran and Dan Dieu, to cook. The timing of their debut, just weeks before the pandemic shutdown, added extra challenges. But there’s such a bright spirit to this collaborative family effort that Mi ‘N Tea has fast become a worthwhile addition to Main Street’s diversifying restaurant mix.

Kim, 34, who still works for a financial tech firm, does marketing for the restaurant and pushes to keep the menu trendy, using the banh mi roll to showcase both classic combos and pan-Asian ideas, like Korean bulgogi beef or deep-fried filet mignon (inspired by Japan). The fusion ideas have occasionally given her traditionalist parents pause. But the results are reliably tasty.

“And we’ve compromised with each other,” says daughter Kim, who, in turn was unsure about adding bò kho. I’m glad she agreed. This hearty beef and carrot stew aromatic with lemongrass and star anise, is one of the most comforting cold weather soups around. Mi ‘N Tea, 4229 Main St., 267-297-7257; mi-n-tea.com