Viet Nam News
The Quán Ăn Ngon chain of restaurants has won wide acclaim for popularising traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The enterprise was inspired by the culinary excellence of her grandmother and mother, founder Phạm Bích Hạnh tells Việt Nam News.
You are celebrating 11 years of Quán Ăn Ngon on September 11 this year. How did you start this enterprise?
My inspiration came from my childhood experience, when I lived with my grandmother and my mother, who were famed cooks. My grandmother, Nguyễn Thị Tân, known as Bà Lâu, had a very famous phở bò (noodle soup with beef) in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter near the Đồng Xuân Market.
Several elderly people have told me they can never forget the taste of my grandmother’s phở.
Hà Nội has always been known for its snacks and street food. As a little girl, I was often taken to enjoy snacks at the Đồng Xuân Market, and on Lý Quốc Sư and Tạ Hiện streets.
When I grew up, I realized that street food was a singular feature of Vietnamese cuisine, and of Hà Nội in particular. So I thought of introducing quality traditional dishes from the country’s three regions. This was how the first Quán Ăn Ngon restaurant was opened at 18 Phan Bội Châu Street.
As you look back on Quán Ăn Ngon after 11 years, what are your feelings?
I just thank God that since the first days of opening, the restaurant has been packed with customers, including foreigners. Sometimes, there are long queues of people waiting for their turn.
Tell us the secret of your success.
Actually, there is no secret. The house at 18 Phan Bội Châu Street is a French colonial villa that was once owned by renowned Dr Phùng Ngọc Tuệ, who used it as a medical clinic. When he died, his descendents let out the villa to a foreign company to open a representative office.
The locals were very curious to see the villa from inside. The villa is surrounded by trees, such as ylang-ylang and sapodilla, and I have planted bananas and bamboos to try and create an authentic Vietnamese space.
I think this, good food and affordable prices are the reasons why so many people keep coming to the restaurant. Many people have expressed surprise at how affordable the food is here.
Before I opened the restaurant in a villa, very few restaurateurs were concerned about the space. They only thought about the food. From the very beginning, I wanted people to experience a culinary culture, not just food, so I paid a lot of attention to the surrounding environment. This concept has clearly worked.
Our food also attracts customers from all walks of life.
Once, an overseas Vietnamese, Dương Quang Phong, about 60 years old, said the chè sen (lotus seed pudding) we served made him relive his childhood, reminding him of the time he used to have this dish from a stall on the corner of the same street.
Young students studying abroad also visit the restaurant to enjoy bánh tôm and bánh gối to get a taste of their mothers’ or grandmothers’ cooking.
Several elderly Việt Kiều between 70 and 80 have told me that they’d believed that they would never again enjoy the tasty plain rice flan of the olden days, but were able to savour it once again at my restaurant.
Our foreign customers are also surprised by our reasonable prices and friendly service. So we demonstrate the warm hospitality of Vietnamese culture.
You have opened several branches of Quán Ăn Ngon since. Can you tell us something about them?
The restaurant at Trung Hòa Nhân Chính is located in a new urban area with high buildings and very few trees. I found that the area lacks a local market, and it was dominated by western fast food and pizza restaurants.
So I decided to have the restaurant designed based on ancient Hà Nội architecture, using wooden door frames and roof tiles. The aim was to bring Hà Nội’s old-world charm to the new urban area, along with tasty food.
I was a little concerned at first that there might not be as many guests as at Phan Bội Châu Street, but my fears were unfounded.
At the third Quán Ăn Ngon on 34 Phan Đình Phùng Street, we serve customers in a private dining room. Officials from several embassies are our regulars. They bring their guests here to introduce Vietnamese cuisine.
Our fourth restaurant is at the Royal City Trade Centre, where many snacks are served apart from the regular dishes.
Last year, we opened the Ngon Phố - a Food Street Restaurant at the Aeon Mall in Long Biên District. We wanted to serve customers with traditional Vietnamese dishes including bánh khoái, bánh tôm and bánh hỏi in street food style.
Our consistent popularity is because we serve a huge variety of dishes at reasonable prices in a pleasing atmosphere. We also go to great lengths to make our food authentic. For example, when we cook bún bò Huế (Huế beef noodle soup), we obtain authentic and quality mắm ruốc (shrimp paste) from Huế’s reputable manufacturers.
Our aim is also to use different concepts and designs for each of our outlets, offering our customers a different experience.
What are your future plans?
I’m planning to open one more Quán Ăn Ngon, spreading over 2,500sq.m, in Đà Nẵng. The design concept will be that of a citadel gate.
We continue to learn more about Vietnamese culture and cuisine. To learn more about our culinary heritage, since 2014, we have been asking thousands of our employees to introduce us to the specialties of their native villages.
Several foreign companies from the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and China have expressed their desire to open Quán Ăn Ngon as a franchise in their countries.
This can bring us a lot of money, but I’m still not ready to export our trademark abroad. I want to continue improving the quality of our dishes as well as our management practices. — VNS