Life can turn on a dime, swiftly and without mercy.
vancouversun.com | Mia Stainsby | August 24, 2016
That is what happened to the Nguyen family six years ago when Hoang Nguyen died. He was the heart of Pho Hoang, a longtime Vietnamese fixture on Main Street that opened in 1994. He was 54. His wife Ly continued cooking, as she had done ever since they arrived as refugees in 1983.
Son Vincent was in Australia in his second year of medical school when his father died.
“I couldn’t stay away,” he says. “Mom was trying to run things. I left school and came back here. My dad had been the front of house, the life of the restaurant. My mother was an excellent cook with an amazing palate. Together they created the restaurant. They created a place where everyone gathered, ate and drank.”
The family struggled to keep the restaurant afloat and there came a point last year where they had to make another sharp turn — either close the restaurant or transform it.
Last April, it became Anh And Chi (means “brother and sister” in Vietnamese) — Vincent’s sister Amelie took time off her full-time job in health care and still takes part in running the business). They modernized the room, revamped the menu, and it’s not only one of the coolest rooms on Main Street, the food is delicious.
Mother Ly is still in the kitchen and Vincent is front of house but she’s passing on her cooking skills to him. The food is his mother’s home cooking, plated with the esthetics of the next generation. Modern cocktails, craft beers, and B.C. wines steer the “gathering place” idea into the 21st century. They nabbed Guy Stowell, formerly of Bao Bei, to handle the drinks program.
Of the dishes I tried, the Streetside Platter ($18) stands out — a bamboo tray lined with banana leaf with an array of inspirations from street food vendors in Vietnam. There’s house-made pork sausage, beef in betel leaf, grilled chicken, spring roll and grilled prawn with lettuce, herbs, rice noodles and chili fish sauce.
Another mixed plate, Chu Tu ($18), takes aim at carnivores. Char-grilled lemon grass chicken, pork chop and shortribs are all finger-licking good.
The fried chicken wings ($11) are addictive. “Funny story,” says Vincent. “My mother came up with a great recipe while we were renovating but when we opened, she’d totally forgot how she made it so she came up with what we have now. It goes back to her great palate.” A chili fish sauce dip tames the deep-fried aspect.
Under salads, Goi Thom Tuoi ($16) has a drama queen thing going on. The dish sports a cutaway of fresh pineapple shell and crown and the salad is bright and fresh with pineapple, pickled jicama and carrots, herbs, and peanuts dressed with tamarind dressing. You have a choice of grilled chicken, prawn or tofu to go with it. I had it with the prawns (skewered) and loved the sweet, sour, salty, tangy thing going on.
A pho dish, Pho Hoang, is there, as in memoriam. “We’ve had the same pho recipe all these years,” says Vincent. “I remember (my father) telling me: ‘memorize what’s in it.’ ”
The Number 37 is item number 37 from the old menu: grilled lemon grass chicken and/or pork chop with rice and chili fish sauce, and a very popular dish.
Dessert, a bread pudding-like dish with baguette, Vietnamese banana with a side of Cognac coconut milk wasn’t as exciting as the savoury dishes.
I would like to try every single one of the savoury dishes on the menu, partly because I love Vietnamese food but mostly because this is very good Vietnamese food.
“There’s so much that has been done to honour our friends and family in this place,” says Vincent.
“Our grandmother had a restaurant in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). It was a hub for artists and people to come and talk. It was a place where people felt free to talk about anything and where they played music that had been banned.”