The New Vietnam (Food) War in Korea

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Photos by Christopher Saint Germain, Robert Evans, and Justin Howard
Photos by Christopher Saint Germain, Robert Evans, and Justin Howard

The New Vietnam (Food) War in Korea

by: Monica Williams | .
Groove Korea | .
published: December 04, 2017
Vietnamese food franchises have been sprouting up all over the peninsula this year, with cuisine from the northern part of the Southeast Asian country changing the food culture in Korea.
 
Pho has long been popular here but the arrival of Emoi in 2015 generated long lines of Koreans with a new appetite for Hanoi-style pho and bun cha.
 
The arrival of second-generation eateries has created long lines outside the doors and sparked a food war between established Korean parent companies like Tasty Company and SF Innovation. In neighborhoods like Itaewon and Gwanghwamun, the chains are steps from each other. They come as Korea’s restaurant industry is recording record revenue. According to the government, sales in the restaurant sector have doubled in the last decade to 108 trillion KRW (95.4 billion USD) in 2015, led by a growth in franchises and single-person households.
 
Old-school Pho Mein, which opened its first site in 2006 with a focus on southern Vietnamese cuisine, has 70 stores today but its growth has recently stagnated. That, along with its longevity, has convinced some in the food industry that there’s room for something else.
 
Northern Vietnam cuisine has skyrocketed in popularity in the last year for three of the chains, and none have plans to slow down.

Bun Cha Ra Boom
 
Established: Summer 2017
Number of locations: 4
 
There’s almost always a line of people under the bright-yellow sign outside Bun Cha Ra Boom in Hannam-dong, waiting patiently in the cordoned-off area to get in.
 
Demand for the northern Vietnamese cuisine has been high since the franchise entered the market this summer with its first location. Its fourth branch, in Gwanghwamun, is the latest and opened last month.
 
The restaurant’s claim to fame is its bun cha (12,000 KRW), Hanoi’s second most favored dish after pho. The bun cha, or charcoal-grilled roasted beef, meatballs and white homemade vermicelli, is served in two separate dishes with fresh lime, mint, cilantro, bird’s eye chili, pickled garlic, and herbs in smaller containers on the side. The meat is grilled with charcoal from the Vietnamese coffee tree. Barbecuing the beef sets Bu Cha Ra Boom apart from its competitors as you can taste the smokiness. Bun Cha Ra Boom is generous with its portions of meat but on one occasion, it tasted slightly overdone and the charcoal taste was overpowering. Overall, the bun cha is a flavorful dish, but has no hint of fish sauce, an ingredient commonly used as a flavoring. The dunking sauce has just the right amount of sweet and sour, which makes up for the absence of fish sauce.
 
The menu, which is printed in Korean and English, also includes three types of pho. A standard bowl (9,000 KRW) includes a beef broth that has been boiled for 24 hours while meat and seafood sauce are additions to the premium Hanoi Pho Cao Cap (12,500 KRW). The Pho Cay, a pork and chicken broth soup that’s a bit spicy (9,500 KRW), has recently been added to the Korean-language menu per customers’ requests.  All of the pho comes with a healthy dose of bean sprouts. A chef’s tip on the menu smartly suggests that lime be drizzled on both noodle dishes. They come with a few slices on the side but any extra will cost 1,000 KRW.
 
The nem dumplings are stuffed with chopped pork, shrimp, and mushrooms and are neatly wrapped in rice papers before being deep fried. Light, crispy and not the least bit oily, they make a perfect appetizer for only 6,000 KRW. For a side dish that’s a bit healthier, choose rau muong, or water spinach (7,000 KRW) which is stir-fried in just enough garlic.  Take a friend and order everything on the small menu as a set for 37,000 KRW.
 
Three beers (333, Tiger and Saigon) and NepMoi, an imported vodka billed as “Vietnamese soju” are among the drink offerings. The standout is the traditional Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. You won’t find it on the menu and that’s intentional.  Given its heated market and long lines, the restaurant wants to ensure it’s seen as a hotspot for noodles, not a café to linger. Order the coffee on the way out.
 
Rice noodles are the star of the show here, said Kim Bum Seok, an assistant manager with parent company SF Innovation, and customers are eating them up. Market saturation isn’t a concern, he says, as SF Innovation, owners of School Food and April Market, are veterans in food innovation.  The southern Vietnamese food chains like Pho Mein and Little Saigon have had staying power. Northern cuisine can too, he said.
 
Bun Cha Ra Boom Itaewon store
Address: 247 Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
02-749-4993
 
Open 11 a.m. – 2 a.m. Mon-Thurs / 11 a.m. – 6 a.m. Fri & Sat
 
Valet parking avaiable
Emoi
 
Established: May 2015
Locations: 81
 
At Emoi, the piping hot pho comes in three varieties. All have the right ingredients: a rich and flavorful broth, generous slices of beef, fresh rice noodles, and toppings of cilantro and scallions.  The standard bulgogi pho (11,000 KRW) contains a leaner cut of beef than the premium, offered for 1,000 won KRW, but it’s no less tasty. The broth, boiled for 24 hours, is chock-full of meat but light and almost clear, and is the most flavorful I’ve had in Seoul.
 
When the restaurant opened in late 2015 , both foreign and Korean foodies heralded it as an improvement over the established chains serving food from the southern part of the country.  For starters, the place “felt” authentic, with tea served on arrival, red chopsticks, imported plates and Vietnamese art and lighting serving as a contrast to the wooden walls. My companion and I were comfortable here. The food wasn’t entirely unfamiliar as pho has been served throughout Seoul for a while, but there’s a difference. One of the secret weapons to Emoi’s success is likely its in-house noodle machine, which churns out wide noodles daily. There’s no mistake about their freshness; you see and taste it.
 
The bun cha (13,000 KRW), made with grilled pork, is served with the same wide noodle as the pho, and may be a turnoff for purists used to the thinner white rice noodle. Perhaps the dunking sauce will make up for it, with its fish-based flavoring that’s pungent but not overpowering. Both dishes come with bird’s eye chili, pickled garlic and cilantro; if you’re aren’t sure where to mix what, there’s instructions on the menu but the empty bowls are designed for experimentation. Diners can spice up their noodle dishes with a squirt or two from the Sriracha or hoisin bottles at the table, but it’s better to use the accompanying chilies or the fresh garlic.
 
There’s not much else on the menu, but in Hanoi pho for breakfast and bun cha for lunch go a long way. In Vietnam, pho is the quintessential hangover cure, said corporate manager Park Jeong An. Fittingly, the Itaewon branch, open 24 hours, draws crowds in the wee hours of the morning.
 
Rau muong, or morning glory, a stir-fried water spinach (9,000 KRW) is a complement to either of the entrées. In Vietnam it’s served with most meals. At Emoi, it’s seasoned with chili, fish, and soy sauces, and sautéed in garlic, to give it a flavorful saltiness. It was perfect for me, but a bit salty for my companion’s taste. Nem and com rang, which is fried rice with vegetables, shrimp, egg and fish sauce (9,000 KRW), round out the food menu.
 
The Vietnamese brands of beer (Hanoi, Saigon and Saigon Special) all have low alcohol content and pair nicely with the food, costing 5,000 to 6,000 KRW.
 
Emoi Itaewon store
Address: 180 Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Tel: 02-3785-0588
Open 24 hours
Banh Pho6
 
Established: 2013
Locations: 17
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.
 
Banh Pho6 Gwanghwamun store
2 fl., 9-gil 9 Saemunan-ro, Jongro-gu, Seoul
02-725-6661
11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
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