Chefs working with fresh ingredients and artful presentations are wowing
diners in cities on the West Coast
Bargain hunters have always known where to track down a satisfying Vietnamese meal: the no-frills restaurants serving steaming bowls of pho noodle soup that have popped up across the West. But a growing number of Vietnamese chefs—many inspired by Charles Phan’s trailblazing Slanted Door (www.slanteddoor.com ) in San Francisco—are changing the way we think about the varied cuisine of their homeland, opening stylish restaurants that focus on fresh ingredients and artful presentations.
At the elegant Bui in Berkeley, Calif., (www.pbuidining.com ), Patrick Bui serves his banana flower salad—a tangy tangle of crisp pear, peanuts, julienned banana blossom, and crunchy shallots—spilling out of burgundy banana petals. At Silk (www.phovanrestaurant.com ) in Portland, Lam Van prepares traditional salad rolls with salmon. And Tammy Hyunh of San Francisco’s sleek Bong Su (www.bongsu.com ) stuffs tiny quail with rice and shiitakes, then roasts them until golden.
"We’re not trying to be upscale, we’re trying to do things fresh," says Eric Banh, owner of Monsoon in Seattle (www.monsoonseattle.com ). "When people glorify inexpensive places, it’s insulting to me," he says. Banh finds it ironic that Americans have come to believe that "authentic" Vietnamese should be cheap. He says to prepare food similar to what you find in Vietnam—where people hit the market every day—requires the highest-quality ingredients. "In Vietnam you eat organic chicken. Period," Banh says. "There, the chickens are running around eating good grains. Then you come to America and wonder why the chicken tastes awful. To duplicate what you get in Vietnam translates into price."
Stephanie Dinh of S Vietnamese Fine Dining (www.sfinedining.com ) agrees. Dinh makes pho the old-country way at her restaurant in Westminster, a Southern California city with one of the country’s largest Vietnamese neighborhoods. She relies on meaty bones and free-range chicken for flavor, eschewing that staple of the mom-and-pop Vietnamese American eatery: MSG. Less traditional are Dinh’s kumquat mojitos. Somehow, no one seems to mind.
Photography by Susan Seubert 
This article was first published in January 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.