Eric Banh on the Business of Vietnamese Food in Seattle

[Note: I was contracted to write this piece in 2019, but it went unpublished until now — a casualty of the COVID pandemic.]

“This is Vietnamese service,” Eric Banh smiles and says as the server strolls by and drops a Vietnamese coffee on our table without wasting a step or saying a word. “She’s probably done this 10,000 times, easily.”

It’s far from a complaint. Banh speaks with appreciation. He’s a self-taught chef who opened Seattle’s first “finer dining” Vietnamese restaurant, Monsoon, more than twenty years ago–adding a location in Bellevue along with three successful Ba Bar restaurants. Yet he still likes to support small, family-run Vietnamese restaurants on the south side of Seattle such as Huong Que Deli and Café, where we’re having the first of a two-part lunch. “These are hardworking people,” he asserts, adding, “Year after year, they come daily to make their businesses succeed.” The problem, he says, is that these restaurants will likely close once the current owners retire. “No one wants to take over and do this work,” Banh laments.

Banh knows hard work and difficult circumstances. He was 13 when his family fled Vietnam in 1979 (he remembers under 30 lifejackets for about 110 people on the boat), eventually making their way from Malaysia to Montreal before ending up in Edmonton. He attended school there and later got a job at a high-end French restaurant called Bentley’s, at first polishing silverware and changing ashtrays. With a passion for food, he worked his way up from busboy to cook. Banh gained cooking experience before dabbling with other career options. But his love of food would dictate his future, with Banh returning to his roots and opening his first restaurant, Lemongrass Cafe, in Edmonton in 1997.

Eric Banh in the kitchen

At that time, his sister Sophie was in Seattle, and she urged him to join her. Banh visited and liked the environment: a warmer climate with less snow, cheaper cigarettes (a big draw in his smoking days), and most important, an abundance of incredible ingredients like Dungeness crabs (then just $1.50 per pound), clams, salmon, and other fish, plus produce at Pike Place Market and herbs that provided potential to create a fresher, more upscale take on Vietnamese cuisine. Also, he noticed that there were very few Vietnamese restaurants in the area. The existing ones didn’t feature local, fresh ingredients, so he saw an opportunity — especially since Sophie was willing to work with him. 

Banh officially moved to Seattle in 1998. Together, he and Sophie played with menu possibilities like chả giò cua (fried imperial rolls filled with crab), cá kho tộ (claypot fish), and miến xào cua (glass noodles with crab), while searching for a restaurant location. While there were many Vietnamese restaurants on the south side, he felt the area was too dangerous at night, as was Chinatown. So he settled on a place on 19th Avenue in Capitol Hill, hoping to cash in on the overflow crowds at the popular Kingfish Café across the street. Opening was an expensive gamble, but he encouraged his sister (and himself) by saying, “Let’s be optimistic. At worst, we’ll eat for free for the year, then game over.”

The restaurant he and Sophie founded, Monsoon, proved to be a success — and would be just the start for Banh in the Seattle area.

Banh believes that Seattle is now the most sophisticated city in America for Vietnamese food. But the evolution was slow. For years, the cuisine was limited. “No one introduced Hanoi cuisine — or even central Vietnamese food — twenty years ago because most of us came from the south,” he explains, continuing, “Due to ideological differences, nobody wanted to visit Hanoi… but I visited Hanoi in 2002 and it was the first time I tasted cha ca la vong, and I said ‘Oh, boy! What is that?’” Now diners can find cha ca la vong on a number of menus in Seattle, including Ba Bar’s. The same goes for bún chả, which President Obama and Anthony Bourdain enjoyed when they slurped noodles together during a 2016 get-together in Hanoi.

Banh credits Bourdain for the increasing popularity of Vietnamese food. “We have to be thankful to him; he literally boosted Vietnamese cuisine to the mainstream,” Banh states, reverently. “He was very passionate about it, especially bun bo Hue (an example of food from the central part of Vietnam), which he called the best soup in the world.”

We’re now eating that very soup just two doors down at Hoang Lan, where bun bo Hue is the house specialty. As at Huong Que, I take note of the exclusively Vietnamese clientele, prompting me to mention my longstanding Vietnam House vs. Tamarind Tree observation: These restaurants in the International District share a common wall, but while the Vietnamese people go to Vietnam House, seemingly everyone else goes to Tamarind Tree. Banh nods and says the menus are similar and that the food is sourced from the same providers, but that Vietnamese people prefer Vietnam House because they like the familiar feel of Vietnamese servers, Vietnamese music, and Vietnamese language being spoken. Tamarind Tree, he notes, requires its workers to be fluent in English. Meanwhile, Vietnam House has lower prices.

Bun bo Hue at Ba Bar

Banh sips his soup, contemplating before critiquing. “Ba Bar’s is made with better ingredients,” he comments, “But these folks do a fine job with theirs.” Some Vietnamese restaurants are cheaper than others, Banh points out, because they sacrifice quality in sourcing cheaper ingredients. He’d like diners to appreciate why he and others sometimes charge more. It’s a battle he’s been waging since his 2013 blog post defending $10 pho, arguing that cheaper pho bowls are made with inferior beef from dairy cows. (At the time of publication, his pho starts at about $16.) “No one complains about paying more money for a condo in Capitol Hill versus a condo in Beacon Hill, but people complain when pho costs too much,” he says, adding, “Those complainers aren’t putting cheap gas in their cars. They’re using premium gas.” Good food, he says, requires an investment in good ingredients, and he hopes that new restaurants — and the diners who patronize them — will recognize that need for investment.

I comment that the pace of openings of Vietnamese restaurants is rather slow, especially in comparison to the boom of Chinese restaurants. “Young Vietnamese people won’t be opening restaurants because parents will yell and scream not to do it,” Banh contends. One exception, he cites, is Ba Sa on Bainbridge Island. Run by Vietnamese siblings following in their parents’ footsteps, Banh sees a little of himself and sister Sophie in that operation. Most interesting, he mentions, is that young people like the Ba Sa chefs will be the ones to create contemporary Vietnamese cuisine. It’s not happening in Vietnam, he says, but instead in the United States and especially Seattle, which Banh believes to be home to the best Vietnamese food in the country. 

As for his personal aspirations, they’re humble and sentimental. Banh won’t be the one to pursue more modern cuisine. Instead, he’s looking at twists on his current cooking. He actually wants to return to his roots. Recalling his time at the refugee camp in Malaysia, he says he ate lots of canned sardines. He’s now working on putting sardines on his Ba Bar menu. “They’re great with fried rice and a fried egg,” he reminisces, continuing dreamily, “Or with sausage and homemade tomato sauce, served with a baguette.” (Note: Sardines made the menu during the pandemic, but are currently off the menu.) Otherwise, he wants to continue perfecting his bowls of pho and bun bo Hue, working on better ingredients and techniques.

Taking one more slurp of his bun bo hue at Hoang Lan, he smiles and tells me, “It’s all about good Vietnamese food.”