A taste of Vietnamese street food in South Africa

July 09, 2023 - 10:00
Explore how a Vietnamese woman operates her own kitchen in Cape Town and what ‘street food’ she is selling.

By Hồng Minh

I'm a huge fan of Vietnamese street food. I often wonder who isn't. So, the last couple of times visiting Cape Town – the Mother City of South Africa – both for work or leisure, I have felt an irresistible desire to drop by Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food Restaurant to ease my cravings for the dishes I can't find elsewhere in this southernmost country of Africa.

I first visited Yen’s restaurant earlier last year during a business trip. At that time, I had already tried another Vietnamese restaurant in Cape Town, which was older and more fine-dining. So, visiting Yen’s this time was all about seeing how a Vietnamese woman operates her own kitchen in Cape Town and what ‘street food’ she is selling.

SHADES OF ORANGE: From the outside, the restaurant is fully open with lots of sunshine coming in with the vibes of corner coffee shops in Hà Nội and HCM City. — VNS Photo Hồng Minh

Located not far from the vivid streets of Bo-Kaap, famed for its colourful Cape Dutch houses, Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food joins that picturesque scene by with its brightly painted style in two shades of orange. From the outside, the restaurant is fully open with lots of sunshine coming, giving off the same vibes as corner coffee shops in Hà Nội.

The walls of the restaurant are filled with photos of old posters, and ads from the old days of Việt Nam, semi-hiding the purposely broken plaster. The restaurant also has an area to introduce and sell Vietnamese products like fish sauce, soy sauce, chilli sauce and instant noodles. Even the hanging ornamental plant pots from the ceiling look familiar.

VIỆT NAM VIBES: The walls of the restaurant are filled with photos of old posters, ads from the old time and pictures of landscapes in Việt Nam alternating with purposely broken plaster. — VNS Photos Hồng Minh

The menu serves a wide selection of starters and main courses including nem (spring rolls), bánh bao (steamed buns), phở (beef noodles), bánh cuốn (steamed crepes), and, of course, the queen of Vietnamese street food – bánh mì (sandwich baguette filled with cold meats, pate and vegetables). There is also fantastic Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk). I was so excited to have found all this.

After half an hour of waiting, I finally was invited to sit down and served the long-desired bánh mì, phở, a set of three types of gỏi cuốn (summer rolls) and, surely, a cà phê sữa đá. I know, I know. It was all too much. But I needed to satisfy intense cravings.

The baguette was crunchy how I like, while the fillings were perfect. The stir fried phở, though, was made from the dried phở noodles, but the texture was smooth but still chewy while the seasoning was balanced.

The summer rolls made a good starter. What I really liked about Yen’s dishes was the abundant fresh herbs and vegetables, which is what really makes Vietnamese food. As for the coffee, well, it was a long time since I had seen the shiny dark brown combination of Vietnamese coffee and condensed milk.

WIDELY LOVED BÁNH MÌ: 'Bánh mì' (sandwich baguette filled with cold meats, pate and vegetables is a signature at Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food. — VNS Photo Hồng Minh

These good first impressions were really the reason that I have come back to the restaurant four times since then. Every time, I tried different dishes on the list.

I had a chance to talk to the owner and chef Nguyễn Thị Mỹ Yến. She is an industrious, young and charming woman. One minute she is cooking by herself in her open kitchen, then she is directing other staff to prepare dishes and taking orders, and minutes later she is serving hot bowls of phở, all while saying hi to her regulars.

LADY CHIEF: Owner and chef Nguyễn Thị Mỹ Yến is an agile and young yet charming woman. — VNS Photo Hồng Minh

Yến said her food journey started when she was 15 when she was living with her parents in Hồ Chí Minh City. One day, when she was cooking lunch at home, a group of workers from a construction site nearby knocked at her door and asked to buy whatever was being cooked that smelled so good.

Her love for cooking grew more and more from then on. She moved to Cape Town in 2006 after getting married to her South African husband. But the love for cooking plus the fact that there were not many Vietnamese restaurants in South Africa nurtured her dream of opening her own eatery to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to local people.

In fact, this is Yến’s second restaurant. Her first in South Africa was a small but crowded food stall at a local market, which she still runs at the weekends.

VIETNAMESE STEAMED CREPES: A plate of 'bánh cuốn' (Vietnamese steamed crepes). This is an off-the-menu at Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food which is served as a special treat to Vietnamese customers. — VNS Photo Hồng Minh

In the beginning, she struggled to build up the restaurant, but gradually her cooking has won the heart of many. Lots of her customers are those who have travelled to Việt Nam, enjoyed the food, and now want to find the nostalgic tastes of the Asian country.

I love visiting Cape Town for many reasons. And going to Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food to enjoy the food and a Vietnamese atmosphere is definitely one of the top reasons. — VNS

Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food

Address: 19 Dixon St, De Waterkant, Cape Town, South Africa, 8001

Facebook: Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food

Opening hours: 10am – 6pm (Mondays), 10am – 9pm (Tuesdays-Saturdays), closed on Sundays but alternatively runs a food stall at the local market on weekends (8am-2pm)