Words: Caitriona Devery
Photography: George Voronov
So have you spent a summer in Vietnam as well? Barry Wallace asks me when I pop into his new spot Pang on Kevin street. I actually haven’t, but he tells me it seems like every second customer has, and they want to revisit the vibrant food they found there. Vietnamese food certainly seems to be having a moment in Dublin with both traditional and ‘Vietnam-inspired’ spots around the city. It’s fresh, healthy and perfect for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free, so you can see why it is booming.
Vietnamese recipes aim to achieve a balance of five fundamental tastes. The tastes correspond to five philosophical and emotional elements that are based on Chinese yin and yang. They are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot and they are the building blocks of Vietnamese cooking. Harmony of these is key in food as in life. I am working on mine.
The flavours of Vietnamese food also reflect native traditions and colonial influences: Vietnam has been occupied by China, Japan, India and most notably in food terms, the French. The French annexed Vietnam for less than a hundred years, but there are culinary traces; techniques and ingredients that have been worked into the local landscape. The most famous Vietnamese dish is probably the fragrant pho, a rich French-style beef broth (traditionally) with rice noodles with handfuls of crunchy bean sprouts, fresh coriander and basil, and thin slices of hot red chillies on top.
Another French-Vietnamese mash-up is the banh mi; crusty French-style bread, traditionally featuring cold-cuts of meat and pâté fillings, with slicked pickles, fresh herbs and spicy mayonnaise. It’s an intercontinental belter of a sandwich and it is amazing. Note to the Brits, who were here for 800 years and couldn’t even manage to leave behind a decent snack. The most significant food-related heritage out of that whole business is the potato, and we all know how that turned out.
Pho Viet on Parnell Street was the first Vietnamese restaurant in Dublin, and I am guessing in Ireland. Owner Tri Nguyen came over in 1979 on a boat, not long after the Vietnam War ended. I spoke to daughter Kim, who thinks there were under two hundred Vietnamese in Ireland then, but there are a few thousand now. Her dad had worked as a chef in Hong Kong. In 2012 he and his wife Tuyet, who’d arrived to Ireland in 1990, opened Pho Viet on an auspicious date -12/12/12.
She says that as time has passed Irish people have become more familiar with the food, “We get a lot of customers saying they visited Vietnam”. There are regional differences to Vietnamese food. Kim says, “My family are from Saigon in the south so the flavours are lighter”. Pho is their most popular dish. It takes a long time to prepare, “sometimes my parents are here until 5 or 6 in the morning”. That is dedication. They have two different broths, one for meat-eaters and one for vegetarians. They’ve noticed lots more vegetarians and vegans in recent years.
The menu at Pho Viet has all the top hits. We tried the cha gio, fried rolls which were tasty crispy bites. If you’ve already had pho, why not try its spicier brother Bún bò Huế, beef pieces, delicious sausage, and rice noodles in a rich chili and lemongrass broth dotted with red oil. Another Vietnamese classic is the lace-edged yellow pancake, the banh xeo. It’s a crispy crepe filled with prawn, pork, bean sprouts and onion and comes with a fish-sauce and chili dip. There are lots of noodle, rice dishes, stir fries and grilled meats. Finish with a Vietnamese coffee, a strong coffee mixed with condensed milk to create an almost chocolatey experience.
The chefs in Pho Viet are from Vietnam and the food they cook is traditional with a few small exceptions.
“Both my parents are Vietnamese,” Kim says. “They want to bring our culture into Ireland. We import all the ingredients to make dishes in the traditional way. We get a lot of reviews saying this is really traditional Vietnamese food.”
They want people to know more about Vietnamese food and get the two countries better acquainted.
“It’s the same in Vietnam, not a lot of people know where Ireland is.” I suggest she opens an Irish restaurant in Vietnam as our intercultural ambassador. “I wish! That might be too complicated.”
Complication is absent from the menu at Pang, which is Vietnamese-inspired but a confident and modern interpretation. Owner Barry Wallace used to work in fashion. The recession led him to set up a food stall on markets and then to a successful casual seafood restaurant Brussels. He now works as a restaurant consultant, coming up with ideas for new restaurants and sometimes setting them up himself. This is a modern remix of Vietnamese food. There are hopes to open more in other locations in Ireland and the North. He is, he says, “obsessed with food”.
Barry says, “I like creating new brands, new recipes. I love that creative process of making something unique”. There’s certainly an eye for design and the visual. The rice paper rolls are stuffed full of fresh ingredients. Options are pho spiced chicken, prawn and fennel, tofu and courgette, all with fresh herbs and noodles visible through the translucent exterior. They come with different flavour bomb dips like orange soy or peanut hoisin. They are super pretty and born to be grammed.
They’re also healthy. Barry loved the rolls he had in Vietnam but says, “I thought there was a gap in the market for a healthier version”. The aim is to build up a whole combinatory range of these rolls with different dips, all of which can be made into salad bowls. Like lots on the menu, the pho here is vegan, infused with star-anise. It’s particularly light, fragrant and super fresh. They do a version with chicken and both are topped with loads of fresh herbs, lime, chilli, sriracha and hoisin.
In case you’re worried that this might be a little bit too #fitfam for you, fear not. There’s certainly healthy food on the menu here, but it’s not food that will leave you hungry. Pang is also one of the few places in Dublin where you can get a proper banh mi and it is tasty as. Barry sourced a Polish baker who is making the right kind of bread, a light baguette with a crust that shatters as you bite it. There are a range of fillings all loaded with traditional in-house pickles, spicy mayo, fresh herbs and crispy onions. They do lemongrass chicken, beef brisket or tofu, and my favourite the mortadella and corned beef with pâté. There are cures for gout these days anyway.
Where Pho Viet is traditional, Pang is a more loose representation. I ask Barry where he stands on authenticity.
“There are certain things I won’t bend the rules on, like the bread. Banh mi bread is really hard to source in Ireland. It’s not something that artisanal bread-makers are making. If we sell out of our Banh mi bread, I’m not running off to Dunnes or Tesco. The pickled carrots, daikon are all traditional Vietnamese. Where I would bend the rules is with a main ingredient. You might have a bun cha salad bowl but with jerk chicken. The flavour profiles work together.”
So whether you like things old school or experimental, you won’t be short of tasty Vietnamese eats in Dublin these days.
Some other Vietnamese hotspots in the city:
Aobaba, Capel Street
Aobaba was jammed when I visited. The banh cuon (rice paper rolls filled with minced pork and black mushroom) are such a weird but good texture combination, especially the addictive crispy onions. The pho is colourful, steaming, rich and zingy and you can order small or large bowls. Top notch pancake and banh mi too. Have the bubble tea for more mouthfeel experiments.
Jolin’s Vietnamese Coffee House, Portobello
A café-like spot on Clanbrassil Street, Jolin is family run and features an accessible pan-Asian menu with some key Vietnamese additions, including a rich, nourishing pho (both pho bo – beef and pho ga – chicken), delicious summer rolls (rice-paper rolls) with a fresh and spicy dip. Try the spicy Vietnamese chicken salad and a potent Vietnamese coffee for after.
The best-named Vietnom started out as a stall at Electric Picnic. Founders Milly Murphy and Alex Gurnee set up shop in The Glimmerman in Stoneybatter Thursday to Sunday. They, like Pang, are a modern reinterpretation of Vietnamese food, taking the flavours as inspiration but creating sustainable, vegetarian Irish versions. The menu is fusion, but often includes banh mi and the greats.
Bun Cha, Moore Street
This is Vietnamese on Moore Street, inspired by street food from Hanoi, in the north. Bun Cha is grilled pork and rice noodles, I guess a Vietnamese equivalent to our meat and two veg. They do a range of noodle soups including an oxtail pho and spicy bun bo hue, and a wonton version which looks swish.