When former student Tuan Phung was three years old, his family fled Hai Phong, Vietnam in a tiny fishing boat for Hong Kong.
“We were out in the ocean,” Phung said. “Nowadays, if you get the right boat, it would take you a few hours. It took us a couple months.”
In 1988, the Vietnam War had left devastating effects on the country’s people, so the Phung family left for Hong Kong. Upon arrival to a refugee camp there, the family discovered it was more “like a prison,” Phung said.
Phung’s father, who had been in the food industry his whole life, quickly became the “head chef,” Phung said, for the entire camp.
“He was cooking for tens of thousands of people, the whole camp,” Phung said. “He really has been in food his whole life.”
After returning to Vietnam, the Phung family eventually moved to Philadelphia. Phung attended Temple from 2009 to 2012 for dentistry, but by his senior year, decided the path wasn’t for him. Instead, Phung began developing the idea for a restaurant with his father as the head chef—a role he was familiar with already.
“The idea for the restaurant started about three or four years ago, but I never thought I could make it,” Phung said. “It wasn’t until the support from my dad, my family and my brother-in-law that I really thought I could make this happen.”
Today, Phung plans to open Banh Mi and Bottles at 712 South St. in late spring. The restaurant itself has been under construction for a year, but Phung is steadily preparing the menus, the bar and take-out operation.
Gaining the support of his family was a huge step, as was getting the financial support needed to start Banh Mi. But his recent trip back to Vietnam taught him a valuable lesson.
“It was the greatest trip of my life,” Phung said. “I remember nights in Vietnam drinking different beer, tasting foods and taking pictures, thinking, ‘It is about the food, but what’s missing in America is the vibe.’”
The restaurant plans to keep traditional practices in the dishes like pho and salad rolls, but Phung also wants to mix things up and bring the Vietnamese streets he knows to South Street.
“Our Banh mi is thinner, and more airy than most traditional,” he said. “So now the Banh mi is not the focal point. It will be whatever you put inside. I want to do some traditional Banh mi, but I feel like there’s so much more I can do with it—like tacos! Sometimes I like to put a spin on things.”
With the design of the eatery and bar, Phung wants to take his customers to a street in Vietnam, starting with a hostess stand made to look like a street vendor.
The menu itself is full of a variety of flavors, so pairing the right beers with the spiciness or sweetness of certain foods is going to be important, Phung said. He’s planning to work with a professional in order to pair the right craft beer with Vietnamese dishes.
“On my menu I will offer only certain types of beer to pair up with our food,” Phung said. “With Vietnamese food, there are spices we use that would encourage a lighter beer usually. However, I have a lot more varieties if you want to experiment.”
Banh Mi and Bottles will feature more than 200 craft beers and innovative Banh mi dishes created by Phung’s father. In addition to dining-in, there will be a takeout option for food and beer on the go.
“For the customers who sit down and dine-in, I want to focus on ‘street bites,’” said Phung. “After school or after work, you want to have something small you can enjoy with your friends to hang out. I don’t think they want to have a large meal, because then how can you enjoy the beer or hang out?”
Louis Rossanese, Phung’s brother-in-law, who has worked his entire life in the food business, has lent his knowledge to Banh Mi and Bottles and sees great potential in the restaurant.
“There’s no restaurant in the city quite like this one, it’s such a cool concept,” Rossanese said. “And what better a location to be serving authentic street food than South Street? Plus, the food is actually healthy and tastes amazing.”
When looking back at their trip to Vietnam, he remembered everyone outside, enjoying life and eating the “freshest food,” Rossanese said.
“Vietnam is a different world,” he added. “This environment where people come together is the vibe we want to replicate here in Philadelphia.”
“I would never say I’m going to bring the best food here,” Phung said. “I would say I’m bringing something different to Philadelphia.”
Henry Savage can be reached at email@example.com.
Video by Linh Than.