Phở, the love of Viet fare

Anyone for phở, bánh mì or soda chanh?

These Vietnamese food terms have become increasingly common over the last few years, with the opening of more Vietnamese eateries here.

There are now at least 30 Vietnamese restaurants serving everything from broken rice and grilled pork to noodles in broth and baguette sandwiches.

The cuisine here has been gaining more traction with the opening of no fewer than five eateries in the last year, with another three more opening in the next two months.

Some of those which opened recently include Phở Stop in Tanjong Pagar and Little Saigon in Clarke Quay, both of which started in April this year, and four-month-old Sandwich Saigon Cafe in East Coast Road.

Of the Vietnamese restaurants that had opened in the late 1990s and into the early noughties, only a handful still survive.

They include Phở Hoa and Madam Saigon, which opened 12 years ago.

Notable restaurants in the past included Saigon at Cairnhill and Bistro Chez Moi in East Coast.

They have since closed.

While Thai food has always been popular here, Vietnamese cuisine has struggled to take off.

Restaurants such as Long Phung in Joo Chiat Road popped up a few years ago to cater to migrant workers, and the cuisine has also been gaining popularity among locals, many of whom have been heading to Vietnam for holidays.

Owners of the restaurants say it is the right time for the cuisine to shine.

Mr Alvin Lee, 41, owner of home-grown eight-year-old Vietnamese chain The Orange Lantern, has noticed more awareness of the cuisine among people here.

When he first started out, diners were familiar only with items such as pho, a rice noodle soup.

Now, popular dishes at his two outlets also include grilled chicken or beef wrapped in betel nut leaves and Vietnamese-style chicken curry.

He says:

“There has been an increase in the number of Singaporean tourists to Vietnam over the last few years and also more Vietnamese have moved to Singapore.”

Ms Carlene Ng, 40, owner of Madam Saigon which has outlets in Liang Seah Street and Millenia Walk, does not view the new eateries as competition.

Each new restaurant brings with it a different level of quality, she says.

Mr Wei Chan, 40, who runs PineGarden’s Cake and Vietnamese sandwich chain Baguette – The Viet Inspired Deli, adds:

“Competition is good as it brings awareness to the cuisine.

At the end of the day, it is a question of who can do it better and in its most authentic flavour.”

New food and beverage operator Vietnam-born Kelly Nguyen, 30, who runs Sandwich Saigon Cafe, says she and her Taiwan-born Singaporean husband Andrew Chu, 45, a manager in a bank, saw an opportunity.

Her family runs a baguette factory in Ho Chi Minh City, and leveraging on that know-how, Mr Chu thought it would be a good idea to introduce Singaporeans to an authentic crusty banh mi baguette sandwich.

The baguettes are made at the restaurant.

But how authentic the cuisine is depends on these factors:

Tastebuds, familiarity and where diners have travelled.

Just like how Singaporeans might prefer one chicken rice over another, or have a favourite bak kut teh (pork rib tea), the same also runs true for phở and bánh mì, for example.

Food in the north is often seasoned with soya sauce instead of fish sauce, while food from the south tends to be sweeter.

It comes down to a matter of preference and Singaporeans have been putting together a list of choice Vietnamese picks in town.

Human resource manager Angela Ong, 35, says she likes the banh mi at Sandwich Saigon Cafe and the phở at Madam Saigon.

Of her favourite Vietnamese eateries, she says:

“I like these two because they remind me of the time I travelled through Vietnam and my days as a student in Melbourne.

“It really depends on what you are familiar with, and for me, they also stir up a little bit of nostalgia every time I eat them.”

By REBECCA LYNNE TAN

Source: TST 16/9/2012

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