Who says Vietnamese food can't be upscale?
Sadly, a lot of people, as Patrick Do said his family discovered when they opened their Kingsway restaurant Green Lemongrass.
"A lot of people came into Green Lemongrass when we opened like 10 years ago, and they would say, 'Oh, this place is not going to be good because it's so clean'," Patrick told the Georgia Straight. "And it wasn't like we were doing anything different. We just wanted to deliver solid Vietnamese food. People loved it once they tried it but a lot of people didn't give us a chance. They would just come in and say, 'Oh, it's so clean in here.' "
That's why Patrick and his sister Victoria launched their first gastronomical venture, House Special Modern Vietnamese, in Yaletown on May 14 at 1269 Hamilton Street.
The pair aren't any strangers to the industry—they have long-running culinary lineage and experience to draw upon. Their family has been in the local restaurant scene for the past 30 years, operating Green Lemongrass on Kingsway and in Richmond, as well as Broken Rice in Burnaby Heights. Their extended family in Texas also run restaurants.
"We want to try to change the perception of Vietnamese food where it's seen as disposable, quick, cheap, dirty," Patrick said in an interview at his hip new eatery.
But it's not just class preconceptions they're defying. They also want to help bring more of modern Vietnam to Vancouver.
"It's changed a lot in Vietnam in the past couple of years and a lot of new ideas and Western ideas have pervaded that culture, and so we wanted to take that and just bring it back [here]," he said.
While House Special's recipes pay respect to traditional, authentic flavours and cooking techniques, they also integrate progressive twists and international influences. That's reflected in the fact that their head chef, their mother Yen, works alongside their executive chef Phong Vo, who draws upon experience from Heirloom, Electric Owl, and Ramen Sanpachi.
"We needed to find something...that's familiar to be the vehicle to deliver something that's not familiar and something that's exotic," Patrick said.
Take their banh tieu for example. The fry bread, which has been absent from most local Vietnamese menus, is also known as a hollow donut. However, House Special offers their version filled like a pita so, as Patrick describes it, it's a hybrid between a bao and a banh mi sandwiches.
Although untraditional, Patrick says this reflects his identity as a Vietnamese Canadian as it unites both cultures.
The sesame-seed-covered fry bread, taken from their mother's recipe, comes filled with pickled Asian slaw and either five-spice duck confit, sautéed mushroom or hot-sauce fried chicken.
As innovative as it is, the pita-like sandwich blends in well with other items such as noodle bowls, rice dishes, and small plates. While many of these items draw from street food dishes, presentation remains a priority—all dishes are stylishly arranged upon tasteful tableware.
"Some of the best food that I had in Vietnam was on the street and I think that if you bring that into a more refined setting, you get those really craveable flavours that people really want to come back for," Patrick said.
That's not to say there's any lack of sophisticated plates. Their artfully arranged Saigon steak features tender New York steak in a pho reduction, caramelized potato (with an al dente quality) lightly coated in a nuoc cham sauce, and garnished with dressed pea tips that provide a refreshing contrast of greens.
Fans of pad Thai will find crossover appeal in many of House Special's tamarind-flavoured dishes, such as the succulent son-in-law egg, a panko-fried soft-boiled egg set atop dried chili, house aioli, and tamarind jam that exudes a rich, salty intensity.
Victoria explains their family originally came from Saigon so their menu has a South Vietnamese–orientation.
Believe it or not, Texas also works its way on the menu. The siblings took their Uncle Hing's recipe for sweet, buttery, fried, and fiery nuoc cham chicken wings, and serve atop rice noodle crisps from their relative in Houston.
"A couple of our other uncles are pissed because they don't have anything on the menu named after them, but we're working on it," Victoria said with a laugh.
And yes, they do serve one of the most well-known Vietnamese dishes. In fact, their restaurant's name is a reference to it as a centerpiece: pho.
"We wanted to really focus on the making the best one we could and using high quality cuts of beef, really spending time on putting love into the broth, and then the rest of the menu would change seasonally and rotate out with whatever we were into for that season," Victoria said.
As much as House Special pays homage to the past, it's easy to see that Patrick and Victoria have a clear vision of where the future lies, as they help to propel Vietnamese cuisine forward in the city.
For Patrick, it's about shattering culinary stereotypes. "The best restaurants in the city—they all do that. Look at Bao Bei, Torafuku. Try to describe what Torafuku is in one word. It's hard. But people love it because it's different and it's familiar at the same time, and that's what we want to do."