Palmy has gone barmy for bánh mì and phở, thanks to a Viet­namese cou­ple and their pas­sion for Saigon street food.


Au­then­tic Viet­namese street food is win­ning fans in Palmer­ston North

ANTHONY BOUR­DAIN de­scribes this sand­wich as a “symphony of flavour”.

The well-sea­soned trav­eller, chef and au­thor is such a fan of bánh mì, he took out­go­ing US pres­i­dent Barack Obama out for one while they were both vis­it­ing Viet­nam’s capital, Hanoi.

It’s not just Bour­dain – it seems Viet­namese food is tak­ing the world by storm, New Zealand in­cluded. More specif­i­cally, Palmer­ston North.

Sit­ting on Princess St is Saigon Cor­ner, an eatery swelling with de­mand for the para­dox­i­cally crunchy and pil­low-soft bánh mì.

Vin­cent Pham and his wife Annie Nguyen opened the spot in March 2015, and have since cre­ated room for ex­tra seat­ing, as well as buy­ing a food truck to add to their business.

Saigon Cor­ner serves six dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions of bánh mì, a clas­si­cally Viet­namese take on a filled French baguette. Pickled daikon and car­rot, co­rian­der, cu­cum­ber, spring onion and chilli come as stan­dard, ac­com­pa­nied by ei­ther beef, chicken, pork belly, fish cakes or tofu, or meat­loaf, roasted pork and pâté in the sig­na­ture “Saigon style”.

Saigon style is based on the orig­i­nal bánh mì, which dates back to the days when Viet­nam was a French colony – the French brought their bread and pâté over; Viet­nam adopted them as their own.

But a French baguette from the su­per­mar­ket won’t suf­fice, Pham says. Nor will a run-of-the-mill pâté, so they make their own.

He won’t di­vulge where his baguettes are from, but they’re fresh each day. A proper bánh mì uses a smaller baguette, one roll per sand­wich, and they’re lighter and crunchier than the tra­di­tional French baguettes.

Pham and Nguyen, who hail from Viet­nam’s Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), moved to Palmer­ston North with years of ex­pe­ri­ence in hos­pi­tal­ity, hav­ing worked in and stud­ied hos­pi­tal­ity in Switzer­land and Ma­cau as well as at home in Viet­nam.

But, af­ter so long in the in­dus­try and with two chil­dren in tow, they de­cided it was time to open their own place. They both be­lieved that New Zealand, in par­tic­u­lar Palmer­ston North, was cry­ing out for Viet­namese food.

“It’s amaz­ing how many food busi­nesses [there are] in Palmy. One of the places with the most ea­ter­ies per capita in New Zealand.”

But there was no Viet­namese eatery, he says.

With Viet­nam be­com­ing a pop­u­lar travel des­ti­na­tion for Ki­wis, many of Saigon Cor­ner’s cus­tomers are fa­mil­iar with au­then­tic Viet­namese cui­sine and re­turn with a taste for it, says Pham.

“They have high ex­pec­ta­tions in terms of au­then­tic­ity [but] they are happy with us.”

It’s not just the bánh mì that draws them in ei­ther – Saigon Cor­ner also serves top-notch bún (noo­dle sal­ads), gỏi cuốn (sum­mer rolls), gỏi (sal­ads), and sticky rice dishes, as well as the ad­dic­tive Viet­namese fil­ter cof­fee, served hot or cold, with or with­out con­densed milk.

Then there is phở, the noo­dle soup that ri­vals bánh mì as Viet­nam’s na­tional dish and is hugely pop­u­lar at Saigon Cor­ner.

Mak­ing the clear broth takes two days, us­ing 13 dif­fer­ent herbs and

spices, says Pham, but cus­tomers’ re­ac­tions means it’s well worth the laboured process. “They try the phở and just get ad­dicted.”

Ear­lier this year, Saigon Cor­ner’s phở bò (beef phở) took out the top spot at the New Zealand Food Truck Face­off, judged by for­mer Cui­sine food editor Ray McVin­nie and Palmer­ston North food blog­ger Lau­ren Bram­ley.

With just a cou­ple of ta­bles in­side, the orig­i­nal lunch bar’s success has re­cently seen Saigon Cor­ner take over the prop­erty next door to cope with de­mand. By early 2017, they should be able to cater for be­tween 50 and 60 din­ers.

Their Saigon Cor­ner food truck, mean­while, trav­els to dif­fer­ent events around Manawatu and Horowhenua.

The cou­ple make a note of try­ing dif­fer­ent Viet­namese spots when they are trav­el­ling and have dis­cov­ered there are plenty of gaps in re­gional cen­tres.

While a line of Saigon Cor­ners through­out New Zealand would be nice, the cou­ple say they’re happy fo­cus­ing on ex­pand­ing what they’ve got at the mo­ment.

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