If you asked Vy Phan and Hung Doan what they studied in school, you would never expect them to say they now run a restaurant.
But they are the proud owners of Chào, a new banh mi and ramen restaurant on Barton Street East, just around the corner from James Street North.After moving to Hamilton from Vietnam, both Phan and Doan attended Mohawk College for graphic design and chemical engineering, respectively.
“I finished the program and didn’t like it so I switched to culinary school [at George Brown College] in Toronto,” Doan explained.
After finishing culinary school, Doan worked in several high-profile Toronto kitchens, but he and Phan had plans to own their own restaurant.
“[Hung] wanted to make his own banh mi,” Phan said with a laugh.
Originally, the pair had plans with friends to open a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant, but a difference of opinions led to them following separate paths.
“We actually wanted to open a banh mi stall in the farmers’ market,” Phan explained. “But they already had one… So then it was just looking for another location. And then we found this space… And during the renovations the neighbourhood came by and they said hi. They said this is a good place [to open].”
Chào, which means ‘hello’ in Vietnamese, welcomes patrons with its homey feel and simple banh mi bread logo, designed by Phan, along with their website.
The walls are lined with three-dimensional images of trees, handmade by Doan’s father. A chalk menu lists the restaurant’s two pork ramen options (shoyu and miso) and three banh mi sandwiches (Saigonese, meatball and pulled chicken).
For those looking for the classic option, Doan recommends the Saigonese banh mi, made with house-made cold cut sausage.
“At first we wanted to do all Vietnamese food and do pho, but there are so many pho restaurants around here. And then ramen is still a new thing to Hamilton,” Doan said.
Both dishes were a challenging but fun puzzle for Doan, who spent almost a year perfecting his banh mi bread recipe. It’s similar to a French baguette, but lighter and crispier.
“We went to Costco and I bought 40 kg of flour and I was testing all the recipes,” he said. “When I went to school, there was a pastry class. And [after] I went to that class I went home and I practiced making dough for baguettes.”
“We tried to ask some Vietnamese people and they just said no,” added Phan.
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“Vietnamese [restaurants] keep recipes secret.”
He slowly tweaked his recipe until it matched his expectations: fluffy and light, but with the right hit of crispiness.
Doan also spent a considerable amount of time on developing the ideal ramen formula.
“I like thick and gelatinous broth and I like the noodles to be chewy, so I make my noodles a little bit chewy,” he said.
While their menu list may be short, making a choice at Chào is tough; both the ramen and banh mi are filling and delicious.
Everything served at the restaurant, from the bread, to the sausage, to the ramen broth and noodles, is made in-house by Phan and Doan. It takes hours to prep for each business day.
“We come [here] early in the morning, around six a.m. to make the bread,” explained Phan.
At this time of year, it can be tempting to stay inside as much as possible and wait for spring. But it is worth the walk to Chào for a hearty, cozy meal.