Photown Philly

Words by
Adam Erace
Images by
Hannah Yoon

The city has long been a vibrant hub of Vietnamese food. Today, a new generation is striking a balance all their own—between creativity and tradition, innovation and memory.

Jacob Trinh forgot his grandmother’s persimmons in his car. She has a tree in her backyard in Southwest Philly, where she lives with Jacob’s older brother, John, who gifted her the sapling seven years ago. The variety is called First Life from Jiro. They ripen through October but hang round long after winter has blown away all the leaves, leaving them dangling on the bare branches like squat orange lanterns. “She always instilled that I had to eat them fresh,” Trinh says. “Which is absolutely delicious, but my wife and I can only eat so many.”

We’re sitting at a corner table at the Lucky Well, a culinary incubator where Trinh’s six-month residency, a Vietnamese wood grill-focused restaurant called Nuong, is nearly over. If you’d told the chef when he was in high school that at 26 he’d be cooking coral prawns and canoes of bone marrow over smoldering white oak and dressing them with Vietnamese condiments and accouterments, he wouldn’t have believed you. “I grew up very Americanized, not really experiencing my culture head-on,” he says. “I was in a weird position where I wasn’t white enough to be in the majority, but I also wasn’t Asian enough to be in the minority.”

Chef Jacob Trinh.

Trinh’s mom, a serial entrepreneur and single mother, came up in a strict household in coastal Kien Giang, just above the southern tip of Vietnam, and didn’t want to raise her four sons—Jason, John, Jacob and Jared—in that kind of environment. “Her ideology was to let us be who we are,” Trinh explains. If the brothers wanted to speak Vietnamese at home, she’d help, but she didn’t push it. Trying to fit into their majority-white neighborhood in Delaware County, just outside the city proper, “We all obviously opted to not do that,” says Trinh, “and I kind of regret that looking back.”

Going to Johnson & Wales on a culinary scholarship made him reconsider his identity: “I realized, why am I pushing this side of me away?” After graduating and working in New York and Providence, Trinh came back to Philly, “and I really spent a lot of time with my grandma and learning more about the things that she cooked,” like mung-bean dumplings simmered in ginger syrup and thit ko, caramelized clay pot pork. In the summer, they’d cut fresh watermelon for snacking and then sauté the rinds with garlic, fish sauce and shrimp to eat over rice. “I’m still in that rediscovery phase,” he says, “of getting back into the roots of things through cooking.”

The persimmons will have to wait, though. Trinh has a hundred things to do today, and most days, since launching his independent culinary career in 2020 by selling homemade XO sauce out of his mom’s auto tags shop. The last three years have been a carousel of guest-chef dinners, pop-ups, tastings for the sake society he founded, a Beard House fellowship, meetings, meetings, meetings. Last summer Trinh opened Nuong, which wrapped in late February, and he already has his next act lined up. As we chat, he makes an off-hand remark about how his older brother, John, shares their mother’s unstoppable hustle. Listening, I wonder if he owns a mirror.

Trinh is part of a generation of Millennial Vietnamese Philadelphians, a mix of immigrants and first-generation Americans giving new energy to a restaurant scene that, until recently, hadn’t changed much since the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when refugee resettlement following the fall of Saigon seeded the largest Vietnamese population in the U.S. outside of Texas and California.

Vietnamese pockets dot the city and inner suburbs, but the community’s undisputed backbone is South Philly, particularly a mile-long drag of Washington Avenue. The stretch is home to pillars like Hung Vuong supermarket, a fluorescent-lit wonderland of Asian cookery; Nam Phuong, Trinh’s childhood favorite; Café Diem, a specialist of bún bò Huê, the incendiary lemongrass soup of Vietnam’s royal capital; and restaurant-industry darling Pho 75, populated by chefs and servers on their days off. Vietnamese and non, an entire generation of Philadelphians has grown up with these businesses. They’re as tightly stitched into the fabric of South Philly, an immigrant haven for a century, as the multitudes of taquerias and parmigiana parlors.

Insets: Victor Nguyen took over Ba Le from him his parents in 2022; background: inside Wing Kee China Imports, an Asian imporium on Washington Avenue.

Every weekend growing up, Cat Nguyen would drive with her parents from their home in bucolic West Chester, Pennsylvania, to Washington Ave. “I’d have my school work with me in the car because we would be out the whole day,” says Nguyen, the author of A Very Asian Guide to Vietnamese Food and co-founder and advisory board chair of the nonprofit VietLead. Now she lives just a few blocks away from the supermarket where her parents would pack their hunter-green Explorer with 50-pound bags of jasmine rice, fresh tofu and roasted ducks, and she’s seen the evolution of the Vietnamese dining scene change from the inside out.

“It’s been really great to see how many people are trying Vietnamese food that are not Vietnamese, and I think that’s really encouraging the Vietnamese restaurants to experiment with tradition,” she says. “We’ve graduated into this sort of adolescent period where we get to make our food trendy, popular, fun, extra-traditional, regionally specific.” To that point, she mentions restaurants like Gabriella’s Vietnam on East Passyunk Avenue, where chef-owner Thanh Nguyen eschews the same old vermicelli platters for steamed water fern dumplings and sizzling pork crepes, and Café Nhan on West Passyunk Avenue, a spiritual successor to Café Diem from mother and son Nhan Vo and Andrew Dinh Vo. Serving ferocious BBH as well as Superbowl-worthy wings, Café Nhan is a newer business representing a bridge between the generations. Meanwhile on Washington Avenue, mainstay Ba Le Bakery is an old business representing a bridge between the generations.

“It’s been really great to see how many people are trying Vietnamese food that are not Vietnamese, and that’s encouraging the Vietnamese restaurants to experiment with tradition. We’ve graduated into this adolescent period where we get to make our food trendy, popular, fun, extra-traditional, and regionally specific.”

“In many ways my parents never felt like I was gonna be ready,” says Victor Nguyen, who took over Ba Le a year ago while simultaneously running four salons with his wife, Naomi, and raising three kids under six. “It took them over 12 years of me working full-time after graduation to find the confidence to say I could handle the store.”

Calling Ba Le a “store” is like calling Disney World a cute playground. Established in Saigon by Nguyen’s grandfather and then opened in Philly by his mother, Thi, in 1998, Ba Le is a mammoth operation in a persnickety old building. Production occupies most of the space, with a mere retail runway where every available inch of space is stacked with sacks of bread and summer rolls and plastic-wrapped logs of sundry bologna and banana leaf-wrapped pyramids of sticky coconut rice and pineapple smoothies and sesame balls and green-and-yellow-striped pandan-and-mung bean cakes and an entire line of attractively packaged condiments—Nguyen’s first project after taking over the business last year.

Inset: Thu Pham, owner of CàPhê Roasters; background: inside the restaurant.

This year begins work on a much bigger endeavor: a new, ground-up building in the same shopping center. “This will give my expression of Vietnamese food, still keeping with the roots but presented with the variations that I think would suit our generation,” says Nguyen. When Ba Le 2.0 opens, it will have seating for the first time, more robust customer service and clearer signage and packaging. “From an outsider’s perspective, or even if you’re an Americanborn Vietnamese person like me, if I walk into the [existing] store, I wouldn’t even know what I’m looking at,” Nguyen goes on. “We have to curate a narrative around the food, so people understand.”

Until the new space is ready next year, business at Be Le continues as usual. Their baguettes—thinner-crusted and more cottony-crumbed than the loaves of Vietnam’s 19th-century French colonizers—travel from Washington Avenue to 40 wholesale clients across the city, including next-gen businesses.

Among them is the Breakfast Den, a sunny “American-Vietnamese” luncheonette that opened in 2020 and embodies this moment of culinary remixing. A colorful chalkboard collage of mottos and affirmations hangs over the counter: Ain’t No Party Like a Breakfast Party, Fly Eagles Fly!!!, and mostly instructively, Be Yourself, written toward the top-right corner. For Huyen Thai Dinh, who grew up in West Philly, being herself means serving chocolate-chip pancakes and kale caesars alongside cheesesteak banh mi and the coziest cháo gà, the Vietnamese version of congee, crowned with crispy twists of chicken skin, fresh herbs and a soft-boiled egg split open to reveal a jammy golden yolk.

The Gritty Pandan Trà Thái at CàPhê Roasters is a blend of Thai iced tea and Vietnamese espresso topped with sweet pandan cold foam.

You know you’re close to CàPhê Roasters when you can hear the El, the Philabbreviation for the elevated Market-Frankford line. Each train passes overhead in an invisible rumble, sending shivers down the bolt-studded pewter-blue trestles. The roastery and café lives just across the street in the basement of a 1910 textile mill. It sprawls like the sunken living room of a suburban split-level, all rattan furniture, family photos and houseplants tilting toward the cellar windows. No matter the time of day, it always feels like after school, with maximalist beverages, open backpacks and saucy snacks covering the tables. Swap a book report for a pitch deck and a Capri Sun for an iced Thai tea crowned with pastel pistachio cold foam, and you could be in 1999, sweating AP bio and Y2K. “It’s not a coffee shop,” photographer Paolo Jay recently wrote in an Instagram story, “it’s a coffee home.”

CàPhê is the brainchild of Thu Pham, who grew up in nearby Olney and worked in the nonprofit sector before co-founding the city’s first roastery dedicated to Southeast Asian coffee in 2018. She sources her beans from Vietnamese and Thai co-ops, roasts them dark and strong as a summer thunderstorm, and started selling them via e-commerce and wholesale (the Breakfast Den brews Pham’s espresso) before opening the physical café space in 2020 with a very strong directive for the food.

“Not to say that the restaurants run by a lot of our parents or our relatives are not just as delicious and awesome,” Pham says, “but If I’m gonna do food, I want to make sure it’s like no other Vietnamese restaurant in the city.” That’s both out of creative impulse and respect: “It’s really important for me that we’re not taking away business or making a competition against our people.”

The exuberant food and drinks at CàPhê are distinct from any other restaurant, Vietnamese or otherwise, in the city. It’s less of a menu than an ephemeral collection of taste memories, all chronicled on CàPhê’s social channels. “To me it’s the most satisfying, but also the most effective way, for us to connect with customers that are not just Vietnamese, but anybody, because of that emotional pull and human effort in each and every item,” Pham says. Chef Kevin Huynh has drawn on his love of pasta for the “riêu-sotto,” a mesmerizing Italo-Viet mash-up of risotto and bún riêu, the tomato-and-crab noodle soup. Head barista Phat Tang mined his childhood favorites, kem and dâu phông (ice cream and peanuts) and sua Milo (Milo milk) to create a parfait of malted chocolate soft-serve, brownies and crushed peanuts. The velvety kabochasquash cháo, an early menu favorite, got its inspiration from a pumpkin soup from a Vietnamese grandmother. Jacob Trinh’s persimmon-growing grandmother to be exact. Jacob was CàPhê’s opening chef.

This is a small community in frequent dialogue and collaboration. “I think because there’s such a small number of the young generation opening Vietnamese restaurants,” Pham says, “we are pretty much all in contact with each other.”

Inset: Tuan Phung, chef and co-owner of Banh Mi and Bottles; background: the restaurant's interior.

A topic that comes up often is price and how to charge their worth. “Vietnamese food has never been seen as fancy or worthy of a [high] price because of the overall perception of the country,” says Roland Bui, a Vietnamese Belgian who came to Philly nearly 20 years ago for college and never left. “Japanese and Korean [cuisine] has always been seen as more regal than little stools on the street in Vietnam.”

Bui is a general man-about-town whose many hats include coffee consultant, social media marketer, model for Sabbatical Beauty, a local skincare line with a CàPhê Roasters coffee scrub, and ad hoc consigliere to much of the new class of Vietnamese businesses. You can also catch him bartending weekend lunch at Kalaya, the gutsy and luxurious Thai restaurant that’s become so nationally influential that a photo of chef Nok Suntaranon’s $95 tom yum soup is on an I-95 Visit Philly billboard outside the Eagles stadium. By building a coherent and alluring narrative around ancestral recipes reproduced with deluxe ingredients, then supporting it 360 degrees through service, beverage and ambiance, Suntaranon has shattered the price ceiling on what Philly is willing to pay for Thai food, and the Vietnamese (and Cambodian and Lao and Indonesian) restaurant industry has noticed. “This generation has seen it happening with other cuisines,” Bui says. “It’s like, ‘OK, why can’t we have that as a community?’”

Which is why Tuan Phung’s yellowtail collar at Banh Mi and Bottles, for whom Bui has consulted, costs $40. It’s part of a recent strategic pivot for Phung and his wife Olivia’s restaurant, which opened in 2016 as a refuge on South Street for craft beer and Vietnamese hoagies. Last year, out went the beer fridges and industrial décor, in came woven basket lamps and warm lighting and smart cocktails and baller Viet seafood towers stacked with grilled river prawns, squid ceviche, mussels, clams, oysters and lobster.

“Pre-pandemic, I don’t think our guests were ready for this, but now I think people are more adventurous,” says Phung, who immigrated to Philly as a teenager. “If they want a certain authentic dish, they’re probably gonna go to a mom-and-pop on Washington Avenue, so I take a different approach.”

Rubbed with shallots, garlic, lemongrass and chiles then grilled, the collar is a treasure hunt of succulent dark-meat morsels nestled in the contours of the pointy neck bones. Phung serves it with an outrageously flavorful sauce, a riptide of fresh pineapple and fermented fish. Bui recommends pairing the collar with a pét-nat from Banh Mi and Bottles’ list of natural wines, then marvels aloud at his own suggestion: “Pét-nat with Vietnamese fish collar—that phrase in itself is wild to me. Two years ago, that wouldn’t be possible.”

In two years that and more has changed for Vietnamese chefs in Philly. Two years ago, Victor Nguyen’s parents were still running Ba Le. Two years ago, CàPhê Roasters had just opened under the El. Two years ago, Jacob Trinh was still eating through his backstock of XO sauce. Now, he’s the new chef de cuisine of Little Fish, one of most seminal and beloved BYOBs in town. “I wanted to get back in touch with that more finer dining space,” he says, exploring Vietnamese and adjacent flavors in the context of a high-end seafood menu.

“Pét-nat with Vietnamese fish collar—that phrase in itself is wild to me. Two years ago, that wouldn’t be possible.”

Above: Ba Le's baguettes ready for delivery; below: Jacob Trinh grilling branzino at Little Fish.

I visit him here—a month after our first meeting at Nuong and three days into his new tenure—and order the $90 tasting that kicks off with bread service of Ba Le baguette and butter whipped with maple syrup and fish sauce. His dishes defy tidy categorization: fatty king salmon crudo and orange supremes anointed with spicy, garlicky sa té sauce; iridescent violet blocks of big-eye paired with celery root pavé, melted eggplant and caramelized fish demi-glace. The flavors are confident even if their creator remains a little unsure: “I still haven’t figured out what it means to be Vietnamese,” Trinh says.

In this city, where so many expressions of the cuisine exist, it can mean anything. The server delivers dessert, a speckled quenelle of black-sesame ice cream marbled with incandescent bay-leaf oil and paired with a chewy apple mochi cake that comes topped, brilliantly, with sweet persimmon jam.

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