Amélie Nguyen remembers with relish her experience of eating on the street in her parents’ native land of Vietnam.
The future Vancouver restaurateur was a young adult at the time, and she and some members of her family were having bánh xèo in an alley.
Bánh xèo is a Vietnamese crepe of rice flour made golden by turmeric and stuffed with meat, shrimp, and vegetables.
Although it was only 10 o’clock in the morning, Nguyen ordered bia hoi, a light lager brewed fresh daily.
“It’s a popular thing to go and drink on the street and eat small snacks and stuff,” Nguyen told the Straight by phone.
The scene is emblematic of the food and beer culture in Vietnam, and the memory came back to Nguyen quite recently, when she and her younger brother Vincent were thinking of a way to celebrate a major milestone for their restaurant, Anh and Chi.
The Vancouver establishment co-owned by the siblings is marking its fifth anniversary this year. It opened its doors at 3388 Main Street in April 2016.
“Beer has been a part of our culture, and we thought how lovely it is to create something that blends the craft-beer scene in Vancouver with special mints and herbs that are only found in Vietnam,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen reached out to David Bowkett of Powell Brewery, and suggested that they should do a beer together.
The result was Fever Grass, a gose-style beer flavoured with green peppercorn, citrus, lemongrass, and rau ram, or Vietnamese mint.
The beer is available at the restaurant, in select private and B.C. liquor stores, or delivered through the BeerVan Collective. “We thought that would be a beautiful blend of telling the story of Anh and Chi and our Vietnamese roots and how we’ve been able to be part of the B.C. and West Coast community,” Nguyen said.
Anh and Chi, which means “brother” and “sister” in Vietnamese, traces its origins to the old city of Saigon, where Nguyen’s grandmother had a café during the 1970s.
Nguyen’s mother, Ly, learned recipes from her parent, and it was at that establishment that Ly met her future husband, Hoang. Later, Hoang and Ly fled the country, and Amélie, their first child, was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia in 1980.
The young family came to Canada the same year.
Hoang, who was a teacher in Vietnam, worked in his new country delivering pizzas. In 1983, the couple started serving food to friends during evenings and weekends at their rental home along Kingsway.
In 1985, Hoang and Ly opened the Pho Hoang noodle shop on Main Street and East 20th Avenue, where they did business until 1996. Pho Hoang became an institution in Vancouver, and in 1997 it moved to 3388 Main Street, where it has been reborn as Anh and Chi.
Nguyen recalled that her father got a liquor licence for the old establishment as part of his vision. He wanted to elevate Vietnamese cuisine by pairing home-style food with drinks and cocktails. Hoang died in 2010 and wasn’t able to see his vision fully realized.
It was a mission that Anh and Chi delivered with its combination of authentic Vietnamese fare and drinks in a contemporary setting.
Nguyen said that if her father were still around, he would have felt a “sense of completion”.
“His vision has been expressed. We’ve been able to realize his vision,” she said.
Anh and Chi won Best Main Street Restaurant and came second in Southeast Asian in the Straight’s 2021 Golden Plates awards.
Nguyen also said the celebration of Anh and Chi’s fifth anniversary is as much a nod to her father’s legacy as it is an acknowledgment of the valuable support the establishment got from its staff and industry partners during the pandemic. The restaurant’s employees stayed as the establishment went to “survival mode” in the face of COVID-19.
Nguyen also described as “serendipitous” how Anh and Chi came to collaborate with Powell Brewery for the Fever Grass beer.
The restaurant wasn’t having much dine-in business because of the pandemic, and Nguyen found time to start her plan of bottling sauces. Anh and Chi didn’t have a bottle labeller, and Powell Brewery happened to have a hand-operated device that it was no longer using, which it lent to the restaurant.
When Nguyen and Vincent wanted to work with a local business to mark Anh and Chi’s anniversary, the brewery came to mind right away.
Their mother, Ly, still comes in every morning to shop for fresh ingredients, prepare marinades, and do some cooking.
“She’s our secret recipe,” Nguyen said with delight.