In 1975, the Vietnam War ended with the communist victory and many Vietnamese fled. The Philippines took in Vietnamese refugees and agreed to set up refugee centers in Bataan and Palawan. Vietnamese food became popular in these places.
Returning to Manila from Paris, I noticed that right next to my mom’s restaurant, Au Bon Vivant in Makati, was a row of small eateries offering a variety of dishes.
The very first stall in that row was run by four Vietnamese women. I remember their display of pho, among other dishes. I had no idea what Vietnamese food was about and wanted to try it. It turned out to be delicious and different.
Back in Paris, I saw a lot of Vietnamese restaurants as Vietnam used to be a French colony. One of them, Paillotte D’Or, was owned by someone who became a friend of my brother Bong.
I frequented the place. In fact, a particular dish called Pâté impérial, deep-fried huge lumpia in rice wrapper with a filling of sotanghon and togue, inspired me to adapt it for my own restaurant. Sarap!
Vietnam in Canada
When I lived in Vancouver, Canada, there were also many authentic Vietnamese restaurants. One standout was a spicy, mini-clam dish with rice noodles, topped with chopped banana heart and lettuce, and a funky, liquid, Vietnamese version of bagoong.
I have also been to Ho Chi Minh City where I indulged in more Vietnamese food.
My frustration is I can’t find a great, authentic-tasting Vietnamese restaurant in Manila. Most are good but fall short of the ones I’ve tried in Paris, Vancouver and Ho Chi Minh, or in that Makati fast food.
A friend, Ronnie Alvarez, called me up about a Vietnamese restaurant in Century City Mall owned by a Vietnamese lady. Having recently come from Ho Chi Minh and Nha Trang, my expectations were high. To my mind, if it wasn’t good, I could at least visit The Beef, my favorite burger place at Century City’s Hole in the Wall.
But as soon as I walked into Vina Trang, I knew the place served authentic Vietnamese. I could smell the aroma of fresh herbs and the broth of the pho.
On display near the counter were bottles of Sriracha and Hoisin sauce and a few Vietnamese snacks. Diners included a number of foreigners—a good sign.
I proceeded to order my favorite appetizer, fresh spring rolls with the special patis dip. These were veggies, lettuce, herbs and shrimp wrapped in a moist and sticky rice wrapper. I dabbed some hoisin sauce and then topped it with Sriracha before taking a bite. I felt my nose perspire with each mouthful. Yummy!
I also ordered fried spring rolls, ground pork in a crispy wrap, which in turn was wrapped in lettuce and herbs. I dipped it in a sweet, lemony, sour fish sauce.
From there, I shifted to the bahn mi. While many bahn mi in Manila scrimp on the fillings, they were substantial and tasty at Vina Trang. The mayonnaise was homemade, and the meat consisted of three varieties— Vietnamese ham, bacon, and steamed meat; cucumber, pickled and julienned carrots; and radish, cilantro, jalapeño and seasoning sauce. The bread was good but could still be improved.
Then came the beef pho, a bowl of piping hot, delicious beef broth topped with slivers of onions, wansoy, mint, rare beef and lemon. On the side were herbs and bean sprouts. The rice noodles were perfectly cooked.
I picked up the noodles with my chopsticks, dabbed hoisin and Sriracha, got some broth with my spoon, then stuffed the noodles in my mouth. Heaven!
Vina Trang also serves bun cha, dry rice noodles topped with grilled pork, fried lumpia, pickled radish, carrots, chopped lettuce and the typical sweet, lemony fish sauce.
Its Saigon broken rice platter looked interesting. It also serves delicious Vietnamese coffee, hot or chilled.
Vina Trang, Century City Mall, Kalayaan Avenue, Makati; tel. 0995-1780676
Erratum: Order Sunshine Puey’s cookies at tel. 0917-8832432 and 403 9051.
My Japan food tour schedules: Fukuoka/Hiroshima/Osaka, Feb. 17-22; Tokyo, March 17-22; and Hokkaido, April 7-12.