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Thursday, March 3, 2011

What's Driving Milwaukee's Vietnamese Restaurant Boom?

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Hao Huynh inherited a passion for cooking from his chef father while growing up in Vietnam. So after Huynh immigrated to Milwaukee as a teenager in 1989, he sought out jobs in local kitchens, with the ultimate dream of opening up his own Vietnamese restaurant. That dream felt like a long shot at the time, given the city's small Vietnamese population and the cuisine's low profile, but by 2010, after noticing other Vietnamese restaurants slowly appear around the city, the idea of opening his own seemed a lot more feasible.

"My wife and I noticed we were seeing Vietnamese food a lot more on TV, and people were talking about how healthy it is," Huynh says. "We thought we could open up the restaurant and market the food to a larger population, unlike the traditional, older generation of Vietnamese restaurants, which mostly marketed their food to the Vietnamese community."

Huynh, who with his wife opened the restaurant Pho 27 last fall at 4756 S. 27th St., wasn't alone in his reasoning. In 2010, at least three other Vietnamese restaurants also opened in the Milwaukee area, including Pho Viet (5475 S. 27th St.), Pho 43 (2155 Miller Park Way) and Hue Vietnamese Restaurant and Lounge (2691 S. Kinnickinnic Ave). The city with only one Vietnamese restaurant when Huynh was a teenager now hosts more than a dozen.

To judge by the recent rise of Vietnamese cuisine in the area, some might assume that Milwaukee's Vietnamese population has spiked over the last decade, but that doesn't appear to be the case. When Vietnamese people began immigrating to the United States after the Vietnam War, they congregated particularly in Southern and coastal states. Those that settled in the Midwest gravitated more to Minnesota and Illinois than Wisconsin. According to the 2000 census, Milwaukee's Vietnamese population was only 1,224, and while the upcoming 2010 census data will undoubtedly put that number higher, by all accounts Milwaukee's Vietnamese community remains quite small.

That's why the city's new Vietnamese restaurants are catering to a broader clientele. Hue in Bay View is especially welcoming to newcomers to Vietnamese cuisine. The restaurant's décor is chic and contemporary, and co-owner Carina Tran says that while all the recipes she uses are authentic (most of them were passed down from her Vietnamese mother), she keeps the American palate in mind while cooking.

"We use better cuts of meat than what may be used in traditional Vietnamese dishes because the texture is more appealing," she says.

Pho, the popular noodle soup defined by its rich, aromatic beef broth, is served without the cuts of tripe and tendon that can sometimes put off American diners. Hue even offers chicken and vegetarian versions of the dish.

Pho is a staple of all local Vietnamese restaurants, and its appeal is easy to understand. Served in large, steaming bowls and with an array of side garnishes and sauces that makes each bowl customizable, the soup is fantastic comfort food—hearty and filling, but not as heavy as fried dishes. It's also very inexpensive. That low pricing is a point of pride for Pho 43 owner Brian Banh, whose restaurant does brisk business serving lunch to office and factory workers. At $5.65 for most bowls, Banh's pho is some of the cheapest in the city.

"If the food is cheap, then people will come," Banh says. "If it's expensive, they'll still come to try it, but maybe they'll only return once a month, or once every other month, instead of once a week. Especially in this economy, you have to consider the price if you want repeat business. People can eat lunch at my restaurant for less than they can at McDonald's."

A Vietnam native of Chinese descent who moved to Milwaukee with his family three decades ago, Banh made the business decision to open a Vietnamese restaurant after years of working in local Chinese restaurants because he says the city now has too many Chinese dining options. "I believe there are about 200 of them," says Banh, whose relatives still run a Chinese restaurant on the city's North Side. "I didn't want all that competition."

Banh says 95% of his clientele is American, so he cooks with their preferences in mind. "A lot of real Vietnamese food is cooked with a lot of fish sauce, and fish sauce doesn't smell very good," he says. "If I cooked that way, I don't think American customers would want it."

While pho is the dish that's most driving the local popularity of Vietnamese cuisine, restaurant owners say other items are catching on as well. Banh mi, baguette sub sandwiches stuffed with meat and veggies, have proved to be a big draw at both Pho 43 and Pho Viet, where they sell for less than $4. Pho 27 owner Huynh says he has noticed that customers at his restaurant are eager to explore the menu.

"A lot of the people that come in are already familiar with the beef noodle soup, but they discover there's more than they expected on the menu," Huynh says. "There are also rice vermicelli noodles, egg noodle soups and wonton soups, as well as papaya salad and pork dishes. The way a lot of these dishes marinate gives them a very different flavor from Chinese cooking. Each dish really has its own distinct taste, and customers really like that variety."