CORNER THE MARKET
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.