Banh mi for you Despite pandemic stresses, culinary couple giving it another go with Vietnamese restaurant in West End
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/02/2022 (306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The wind was whirring wildly on Tuesday morning, Winnipeg looked like a shaken snow globe, and the white on the sidewalk on Ellice Avenue at Burnell Street was piled past knee level, but Hang Pham and Ho Le had to open their restaurant’s doors for the coming lunch rush.
Ho, whom everyone calls Mr. Lee, cranked up the metal window coverings, Hang made sure the dining area was spotless and the married couple began yet another day living their latest culinary dream: running Banh Mi Mr. Lee, a fast Vietnamese lunch counter, serving several types of pho, vermicelli and, of course, banh mi, to customers in the West End, where some of the city’s best and most beloved restaurants do business.
Running a restaurant is complicated, especially during the pandemic, and nobody knows that better than Hang and Mr. Lee, who have taken a step that requires significant confidence and moxie: they’ve opened a new restaurant one year after closing another. And they’re doing it in the same building as the former Lin Lan Grocery, a fast casual restaurant Hang’s older sister, Hong, opened in 2014 but closed in the summer of 2020.
During a pandemic that has crushed many restaurateur dreams, the couple refuses to let theirs end without a fight.
Naturally, they met in a restaurant: Hang, who moved to Winnipeg from Ho Chi Minh City in 2014 with her mother and younger sister, was working in the front of house at Phuong Nam, a longtime institution on William Avenue. Mr. Lee, who has lived in Winnipeg since 1990, did a little bit of everything at the restaurant, owned by his brother, learning the tricks of the trade from experienced hands.
The couple began dreaming of opening a restaurant of their own, and in 2017, they did in a storefront on Henderson Highway. Nhu Y was small but mighty, with a menu featuring more than 100 dishes. Mr. Lee and Hang’s mother cooked her own recipes, and the reception was warm.
But after putting everything they had into the restaurant, spring of 2020 brought forth a challenge they had never anticipated: the customers who had embraced their home-cooked cuisine could no longer sit in their dining room. With the anxiety of a new pandemic came fears of their own; not only were diners scared, the entrepreneurs themselves were crushed.
Then restaurants were required to close, and when they finally reopened, it was with reduced hours and for customers who were still not showing up like they had only a few months earlier.
“It was a very confusing time,” says Hang, eyeing the door for the day’s first customer.
A few months before Nhu Y closed, Lin Lan Grocery made the same choice. When Hang’s older sister opened it in 2014, it became a favourite, with their mother and younger sister Han also working there. Lin Lan Grocery was tasty, convenient and, until 2020, reliably open. But with COVID, the restaurant, like many others, closed down to little fanfare — unless you noticed, which many in the West End promptly did. For months, there was anticipation that something else would pop up inside, or better yet, that the restaurant would return to business as before.
In a way, it has. Hang and Mr. Lee were not discouraged from taking another crack at running a restaurant. They learned a few lessons from the closure of Nhu Y.
They still believed in serving high-quality Vietnamese fare, but they needed to adapt to fit the current era of dining, which favours takeout and quick stops more than sitting down for hours, so Banh Mi Mr. Lee emphasizes that: its menu can be snacked on the go or at one of the roughly 15 seats inside.
Much of the menu from Lin Lan has been retained or only slightly tinkered with, meaning the new restaurant has kept in place much of what had already been a proven formula prior to the pandemic.
A specialty is the menu item that shares the restaurant’s name, a pork roll sandwich called the Banh Mi Thit Mr. Lee. “People love it,” Mr. Lee says.
Two weeks after opening day, diners are slowly returning and sampling the menu. Every customer counts to the owners, especially as they try to ascertain what they need to do to stay successful. These days, more than ever, serving well-made food at an affordable price point isn’t necessarily enough. While consumer confidence rose steadily throughout 2021, the rise of the Omicron variant has made matters more complicated for restaurant-goers and food producers alike.
So when a pickup order for salad rolls and a Banh Mi Ga Nuong came in at 11:40 a.m., Hang excitedly jumped out of her seat to prepare the dishes. The first order of the day is an important milestone, especially when the street outside looks like an ice planet.
Soon, the door started swinging open. A teenage boy in Nike sneakers and a hoodie, on one of the windiest days of the year, had to come get a banh mi for lunch. Then in walked Alfred Penaflorida, a government worker who lives in the neighbourhood, back for his second meal in as many weeks.
“We used to come here all the time,” says the next customer, Winnipeg police officer Const. Serge Molina, referring to Lin Lan Grocery. A friend of his told him a new restaurant had opened in the same spot, serving many of their favourites, and Molina was ecstatic. He had no idea the restaurant was owned by a member of the same family, but that made him even more excited to try the Mr. Lee deluxe rice noodle beef soup and take it back to his desk for lunch.
As the first few customers wiped their mouths or walked off into the snow with their lunches to go, Hang and Mr. Lee continued working behind the lunch counter, anticipating who would walk in next and taking a well-deserved breath.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.