A New Generation Opens Up to Global Cuisine
Local tastemakers think outside America's borders
Pat Lee's family left Vietnam in 1978, spending a year in a Malaysian refugee camp before securing sponsorship with a family in Houston. Being only 4 years old at the time, Pat doesn't remember much of that journey, but he does vividly remember starting life in Austin as a third grader once his parents had saved up enough money to open a grocery store similar to the one they'd owned in Vietnam.
"When we were growing up in the Eighties in Austin, there was nowhere to get Vietnamese food," he recalls. "The only way to get pho was to make it at home, and even then you had to go to Houston to get all the ingredients. Of course, we had some of the ingredients at my parents' grocery store, but it was very limited back then. So it was always a treat every time my mom made it."
My Thanh Supermarket (which translates, appropriately, to "Beautiful Victory," but was eventually shortened to MT) began as a 2,000-square-foot market on North Lamar. Pat grew up sacking groceries, cashiering, and then handling the wholesale business as the store grew exponentially with the city. In 2006, the Lees expanded the MT market in the new Chinatown Center development.
At that time, Pat had graduated from UT, married his college sweetheart Sara, and decided he wanted to open a restaurant serving the Vietnamese food he grew up eating and cooking with his mom and grandmother. Sara, who was born and raised in San Antonio, had grown up working in her own family's business, wearing many hats through the years as a busser, hostess, cashier, and waitress at their Chinese-American restaurant.
"I pretty much lived there, when I wasn't in school or at ballet and piano lessons, and I always said that I didn't want to own a restaurant ever!" she says with a laugh. "When Pat told me he wanted to open a pho restaurant, I told him we didn't agree to that in our marriage vows!"
Nonetheless, Pat and Sara dove headfirst into the restaurant industry, opening the only Austin location of the Houston-based franchise Pho Saigon. "In the very beginning, there was a very strong Asian demographic dining at Pho Saigon but it's about 50/50 now," says Sara. "Vietnamese food has definitely come a long way in the 10 years since we've been in business. But we felt like all other Asian food had become very mainstream, and Vietnamese was the only one that hadn't yet. We wanted to be able to educate people on it and cater to the masses."
In 2011, the Lees set out to change that by opening up PhoNatic, a fast casual concept serving high-quality Vietnamese food in a modern, vivid setting that the couple felt would be less intimidating to those who were unfamiliar with the cuisine. And though they did successfully draw in a more diverse clientele, with it came a slew of misguided expectations from Western foodies.
Inside PhoNatic's five locations, news, sports, and cartoons run on large TVs while American pop plays in the background. The flow of the restaurants borrows from fast casual giants like Chipotle. And the menu descriptions are all in English. But the restaurant features most of the same dishes found at Pho Saigon. "In the beginning, it took a while for people to warm up to the idea," remembers Sara. "There are lots of stereotypes about what an authentic pho restaurant should be – that it should be a hole in the wall, or it should be run very mom-and-pop."
"People would walk in and say, 'This can't be good because an Asian guy probably doesn't own it and it's probably mainstream America,'" says Pat. "But even though the atmosphere isn't what you're used to for a typical Vietnamese restaurant, it's the real deal. It's what I grew up eating."
Authentic By Definition
Iba Thiam has faced similar challenges through the years, regularly encountering self-proclaimed connoisseurs who insist on shoehorning his food into preconceived narratives. His menu at Cazamance has changed with the trailer's location and hours, but it has always maintained a palpable African influence and plenty of plant-based and gluten-free options.
"People will go to Africa and have some food, then come try my food and say, 'Nothing here is authentic,'" he says. "So the question is: What is authentic and why are you putting a label on your food? So I am against that. I am against labeling my food as African. My food is African fusion because I am the African that makes the food."
Iba grew up in Senegal, where food played a formative part of his life, from learning kitchen techniques from his mom to sharing daily meals with his family around one large bowl, as is Senegalese custom. In his home country, eating was a community act. "My mom was known for making a lamb and goat stew that I make now, but I make it a very different way," he says. "The neighbors would come over and eat, but then we'd go eat the same dish next door because next door was doing it in a different way too."
When Iba began traveling the world to play soccer, he found himself gravitating more and more toward working with food. Cooking for catering companies in New York gave him a wide breadth of culinary knowledge spanning different cuisines. "As a traveler, I found myself always working in restaurants because you eat for free, you meet people," he says. "It's a really good place to start when you're in a new city. But then it got to a point where I found out I was a cook – that's what I do."
While his African dishes undoubtedly have roots in his mother's kitchen, Iba also infuses his creations with local flavors – using, for example, the heat of poblano to accent yassa, a traditional Senegalese poultry dish brightened with citrus. "I like to cook from where I am from while not forgetting where I am," he says. "So when you come to Austin, there is a lot of Mexican flavor here, a lot of Tex-Mex – smoky and spicy and heat. And poblano is one of the best things that ever happened to peppers."
After serving the Eastside for five years, Cazamance moved to South Austin last year, setting up shop at Radio Coffee & Beer next to Veracruz Tacos. There he found the need to tweak his menu again to cater to the coffee shop atmosphere. "You've got to follow the market," he says. "In the first eight months, I wanted to do the African thing, the real thing with rice, just like we do back home. That's what I did and it didn't work – people weren't ready for that, at least not here."
Now his menu includes all-day breakfast dishes, pita pockets filled with yassa chicken and African smoked brisket and easy-to-eat entrées like the Dakar lamb burger topped with brie, tomato relish, cucumber, and hot sauce.
"Austin has grown so much in the last 12 years I've been here," says Iba, recalling the saturation of Tex-Mex and barbecue that once ruled the food scene. "At this point, it's more eclectic and people are more adventurous. We open up people's eyes and then people appreciate the fact that we are out of our comfort zone and thank us for being here. They're excited I'm bringing a little something different and that's awesome. That's a good feeling."
A New Wave Of Tastemakers
When Gary and Jessica Wu relocated to Austin from New York, they also wanted to bring something new to the food scene. After working in both the front- and back-of-house for hospitality powerhouses like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Union Square Hospitality, Jessica earned a master's in hospitality management from Cornell.
Gary grew up in a Chinese-American restaurant family, mopping floors and flyering cars with takeout menus at a young age, but studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon at the behest of his immigrant parents, who wanted an easier path for him. After graduation, he worked in economic consultancy for eight years despite a nagging passion for the restaurant industry.
He finally decided to leave the corporate world to stage under Doron Wong, celebrity chef Susur Lee's right-hand man, at Yunnan BBQ in Brooklyn. Doron's balance of Eastern and Western techniques was greatly influential on Gary, who began to brainstorm a Chinese-American concept with Jessica. "Everybody's had Chinese food," she says. "It's the most ordered genre of food during the Super Bowl, which just says how much it's been adopted into mainstream American diets."
Despite a recent Estately survey naming Austin the U.S. city with the least Chinese food, the Wus wanted to bring something a bit more creative to Austin, a city they found attractive for its celebration of original concepts. "It wasn't enough for me to say, 'Hey, I'm going to do straight-up Chinese takeout but use better ingredients,'" says Gary. "I'm sure it would do fine, but it wasn't aggressive enough for me – it wasn't risk-taking enough."
After refining their own recipes for Chinese-American dishes like black pepper beef, General Tso's chicken, and honey walnut shrimp, they created Chinese-American po'boys using crusty slices of Easy Tiger baguette. And since launching General Tso'Boy in the Domain this past spring, they've been slowly rolling out other offerings, like grain bowls made from a blend of white and brown rice plus tri-color quinoa.
"To us, American-Chinese cuisine is its own cuisine and this idea is making it even more American by putting it in a po'boy," says Gary, who is no stranger to narrow-mindedness despite the success General Tso'Boy has seen in the past six months. "It's a problem I think every ethnic cuisine will always have. … Am I making authentic Chinese cuisine? I don't know what that means because there is culture in this, in the sense that this is how immigrants who came to America cooked their food to sell their business. So I think technically I'm being authentic to American-Chinese cuisine, but it's not the same flavor profile as what you'd find in Asia – very far from it actually – and I understand that."
A Place At The Table
It's a double-edged sword. The media machine has given rise to a population of elitist, armchair gourmands with a sometimes limited view of what constitutes "real" food, but that same attention has shed necessary light on the world's culinary cultures, playing an essential role in sparking the curiosity needed in diversifying palates and minds. "It definitely wasn't cool to be cultured when I was a kid growing up," remembers Pat Lee. "But with the boom of the Food Network and the Travel Channel, with Bourdain and Zimmern, people are just more open-minded these days, including kids."
The Lees see that day-to-day. The couple recently moved to West Lake, where they've been met with open arms by the community. In donating food to school events, they have introduced Vietnamese cuisine to kids as well as their parents. Their next-door neighbors regularly ask for recipes so they can replicate dishes they've tried at the Lees' house.
"I think finding something you have in common with another culture is enough to start learning about another culture, and that is when the community becomes multicultural," says Pedro Elias Barrientos, who opened up Four Brothers ATX, Austin's first Venezuelan food concept, last winter with his mom, Azalia Martinez, and three siblings.
Azalia, who was a journalist in Venezuela, uses her mom's recipes for arepas, cachapas (sweet corn cakes) and patacones (plantain sandwiches), while her four titular sons contribute their knowledge of business management, graphic design, accounting, and restaurant management. Not even a full year after launching, they are about to open a third food trailer and, now that they've introduced Austin to traditional dishes, they've started to play with Venezuelan flavors and ingredients to build their own original creations. "Once people try our food, they come back to say thanks and this is the moment of mutual interest," says Pedro. "We start talking about food and then the culture and different cities in Venezuela."
And that's exactly what food should be: a stepping stone to a larger conversation about the world and its people. Every dish has a story. Bánh mì came about as a result of six decades of French colonialism in Vietnam – a century before it appeared in slider form at PhoNatic. Ask Iba Thiam about the mafé he serves at Cazamance and you'll learn that the popular Senegalese stew was actually invented by slaves in Virginia before it became an African staple, using peanut crops and Caribbean spices. Next time you're gathered around a host's table, take time to put down your fork and listen, understanding that culture is much more than the sum of its ingredients.