The New Vietnam (Food) War: Banh Pho6
The Banh Pho6 in Gwanghwamun caught the eyes of passersby before it even officially opened in September. It wasn’t the look of the exterior, per se, but the sign at the top of the two-story building claiming it offered the “No. 1 Asian cuisine in New York” and “The Best Pho in New York.” It seemed like the perfect slogan—for a restaurant in New York.
But the motto is aspirational and meaningful, said Grace Jun, marketing manager of the Tasty Company, owner of Banh Pho6. The nod to New York is also a reference to the style of Banh Pho6’s food, she said, which is more fusion and family-friendly than other chains. While a college student studying in New York, Kim Hyung Woo, founder and CEO, worked at Saigon Grill, a popular Vietnamese fusion restaurant in Manhattan and loved the taste and atmosphere there. He collaborated with a chef at Saigon Grill on a menu, developing recipes with a combination of spices that would appeal to a Korean audience. The flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine are pungent, he surmised, and equally loved and disdained in Seoul. He spent six years laboring on the recipes that he had in mind for Banh Pho6.
Banh means “bread” and pho means “rice noodle” in Vietnamese, so Kim did have Saigon in mind. The six signals the number of spices that were mixed in the recipes. The name and number in the restaurant have additional significance, as the chain’s first eatery in 2013 was located near Exit 6 of Banpo Subway Station in Seoul. Today, there are 17 Banh Pho6 restaurants in Seoul and Gyeonggi province.
Banh Pho6 has won over Korean customers with menu items like its its pho (from 9,000 KRW), which is made by boiling the broth with seasoning for more than 12 hours. The summer roll, which is stuffed with sautéed beef, onion and vermicelli, is offered as a platter big enough for a family for 29,000 KRW. The flavor of the dishes, more southern Vietnamese than northern and understated, will delight Korean palates, and the vegetables all are organic. The restaurant may say “Vietnam,” but the menu is a mélange of flavors from Thailand, Indonesia, and India. Fans of southern Vietnamese or Indian food in Seoul won’t be disappointed. The dishes aren’t too spicy, too oily, or too aromatic.
The banh xeo came without the greasiness you’d find if you ordered it from the streets of Vietnam, but was forgettable. The creamy coconut shrimp was surprisingly good, with the seafood covered in a layer of crunchy noodles. The shrimp pad thai, which had a healthy serving of shrimp, seafood and vegetables, was also a hit, but my favorite was the phoo phad phong curry, a yellow Thai-style dish with jumbo soft-shell fried crabs.
Kim seems to be onto something with fusion restaurants. A sign on the door touts that the restaurant serves five of the 50 dishes on a “best foods” list (nasi goreng from Indonesia, pad thai from Thailand, pho, fried rice and goi cuon). Since 2013, when the company was founded, Tasty has expanded to encompass 47 restaurants under seven brands, including Grill Thai, Tasty Market, and Bird’s Kimbap.
During the week, the Gwanghwamun establishment was filled with office workers after dark. On the weekend, the place proved family friendly, with parents and children filling the bright space, what’d you expect at a family-friendly casual chain.