Who's up for Vietnamese tacos and lobster pho?
Despite the obstacles the coronavirus pandemic has thrown in its way, Chinatown's newest family-run Vietnamese restaurant is now open. The fabulously named Pho Cue serves delicious dishes using traditional cooking methods but in a modern style and, of course, an awareness of how they're going to look on Instagram.
The restaurant officially opened for takeaway on 24th June but will be welcoming its first dine-in customers on 4th July.
It’s not just my name above the restaurant but the legacy of my family
Although most of the food on offer is traditional, there are some wild cards. Vietnamese tacos feature a crisp rice pancake - Banh Xeo - in lieu of a corn tortilla and Vietnam-style guacamole using Thai basil, chilli and fish sauce as seasoning. The food is also MSG-free.
Owner Cue Tran’s uncle is head chef, an expert in traditional Vietnamese food, with Cue on hand to help him to modernise the dishes.
“If I leave it to him, he’ll be happy to just stick it in a bowl, as long as it tastes great and it’s hearty. I say to him, but I can’t take an Instagram photo though can I? I know it tastes good - it tastes like home. It’s not just my name above the restaurant but the legacy of my family. As long as the methods are there then you bring it up to date and make it look Instagram-worthy, you’ve got a winner.”
A reverence for his family history and seeing his parents continue to struggle in different ways inspired Cue to start his own business. His grandfather and uncle were killed when an American bomb was dropped on their village in the Vietnam war. A few years later, his family escaped the subsequent Sino-Vietnamese war, barely making it to the Hong Kong border. There they lived for months in a giant warehouse with thousands of others before moving into an apartment "the size of your bathroom."
“My dad was in the marines. He knew the waters," says Cue. "We had to wait til about 4am and get in a little dinghy. You couldn’t use a motor because no boats were allowed in or out - as soon as they saw one they’d shoot it down. Luckily enough we managed to get over to the borders." They eventually made it over to the UK and have worked in the food industry ever since.
"I was about two or three months of age. The stories they told me always stuck in my head. When they had to get food, they took these buckets and they’d put rice and veg in it and you’d have no chopsticks and just ate with your hands. I was conceived in a shed. When I went back to Vietnam my dad showed me. I was like, that’s not even a shed. My parents struggled.”
Cue remembers helping out in his parents’ takeaway in Denton when he was a kid. He’s always been around the food industry and has seen the good and bad side of it. The Vietnamese family work ethic meant everyone was excepted to muck in, even the kids.
Unfortunately, his parents’ business closed and they started working for other people. Cue was unhappy with the way they were treated.
“It’s disheartening when you see your family go through a lot of fails. It didn’t sit well with me seeing them working such long hours - they don’t even get a chance to eat. It’s non-stop. It hit home about two years ago when I saw my mum sitting on a fridge eating at one of the restaurants she was working at. Even talking about it now hurts my heart a little bit.”
The exploitation that goes on behind the scenes in the restaurant industry doesn’t get spoken about very much and probably needs to be.
“I’ve worked in offices most of my life, my way of thinking is different to my family’s,” says Cue. “The expectation is that you work flat out. We’ve decided that we need to close up even if it’s for half an hour, to give people a breather.”
Cue wants to change that unethical model and also to set an example for other business owners. Aside from that, he’s just really proud of the traditional food of his heritage, but he's given it a millennial makeover.
“I really just want people to try my food. Vietnamese food is all about heart and preparation. Our broth can never be made the same day. If you make it the same day, it’s not the broth. You’re cheating. It’s made the day before and it’s simmering for about 24 hours.
“Our modern take on a Vietnamese katsu curry uses lots of different fruits like apples and oranges and potato starch as a thickener instead of wheat flour. It’s a healthier version. I have a lot of Asian friends who love my cooking but they complain that they can’t find Chinese food that’s halal. Some of my dishes will be halal. It’s just trying to create a bit more diversity. I want to make sure my friends can eat there.”
Another thing that sets Pho Cue apart is the in-house barbecue.
“For our spicy lemongrass pork - 'Bun Thit Nuong.' A lot of places might use an electric grill but you can’t get the full charred flavour without using a real BBQ. It’s like putting a piece of toast in a microwave.”
Cue is avoiding delivery because he can’t stand the thought of the food arriving sub-par, but there are plans for some serious specials once the restaurant can open properly.
“We’re going to be doing lobster pho. Dad always made his special tea which was salt and pepper lobster with a bowl of pho. That chargrilled lobster in the broth adds a different flavour all together. I can’t sell it as a takeaway, we’ll only be doing it once a week when we’re open properly. All the lobsters will be purchased locally to support local businesses instead of buying it frozen. Everything’s got to be fresh.
"I want it to be affordable, so instead of eating out once a week, people can come twice and it shouldn’t cost them an arm and a leg. Vietnamese food shouldn’t be expensive. It’s street food.”
COVID-19 and the lockdown threw a spanner in the works for so many businesses that were gearing up to open. Cue is philosophical.
“I had days when I couldn’t sleep. If you suddenly get stopped in your tracks it throws you off, but now I see it as a blessing in disguise. I’m not spiritual or anything but I think that if you need something, there’s an energy that will pull it towards you one way or another. If your heart’s not in the right place or you’re not ready for it, the door will be shut. You don’t realise until it happens and then you look back and think, it happened for a reason.”
And what about that name?
Cue laughs. “Technically it should be Cue Pho - Cue’s noodles - but it sounds better the other way around - it gets people’s attention. Once they’re in here, the food speaks for itself.”
Pho Cue, 52a Faulkner Street, Manchester, M1 4FH