Slammed at lunchtime and busy at night, Phan Thi Anh Loan’s café, Banh Mi Bay, is the best known banh mi outlet in London. It also brought the Vietnamese baguette to the UK. Words by Nick Ross
This is the second time I’ve been to Banh Mi Bay, in London’s Holborn area. And it’s the second time I’ve sat in this contemporary yet traditional banh mi café with a glass of café sua da in hand. It’s not Vietnam. But swap out the environment and the location, and the senses on the palate are identical. From 15 years ago when something that roughly equated to ‘Vietnamese’ fare was cooked up by Chinese immigrants from Saigon’s Cho Lon, to today, where the taste is authentic, Vietnamese cuisine in London has come on leaps and gastronomic bounds.
Sat opposite me is Tra Vinh-born Phan Thi Anh Loan. Besides being the woman behind Banh Mi Bay, she also holds another accolade — Loan was responsible for bringing the Vietnamese baguette to the UK.
Arriving in England as a refugee when she was just a few months old, the business studies graduate and former business analyst was brought up in Camberwell in south London. But yearning to leave the world of corporate business, 10 years ago she set up her first café — in Camberwell.
“I just wanted a change of lifestyle,” recalls Loan. “I was looking for different things to do. But the main reason was because during that time there wasn’t anywhere you could go and buy a banh mi. You had to make it at home. It takes hours to cook and marinate the meats, and prep all of your vegetables, and it just seemed a lot of effort for a few banh mi.”
What finally convinced her were trips to Paris, where there were a few Vietnamese shops selling really good baguettes. So, setting up in South London, and baking the banh mi in house as well as making xa xiu (barbecued pork), pate and do chua (pickled vegetables) on site, Loan was the first person to bring banh mi to the UK.
The resulting baguette is twice the size of its Vietnamese namesake, but beyond that, says Loan, the only difference is that “we use organic flour and a western flour improver rather than a Vietnamese one, just so it meets the standards here.”
Banh Mi for the People
With any new business there is an unforeseen set of challenges. Yet for Loan, selling the concept of banh mi to the British market was the easy part.
“There are a lot of international people living in the UK and people are open-minded,” she explains. “There’s also a lot of international travel and Vietnam is a really popular destination. So, people knew about banh mi already. It’s just they weren’t able to enjoy it because it wasn’t there in London.”
Rather, it was managing staff, health and safety and “just things that I hadn’t experienced before” that she found tough. In addition, customers from all over London began frequenting the café, imploring her to set up in town or in other parts of the city — despite its proximity to Brixton, Camberwell is not a location accessible to most people in London.
So after three years she sold the business and opened up in Holborn, a short walk from the British Museum. Since then she’s started a second café in St. Paul’s, right in town, as well as a take-out banh mi joint in Fitzrovia near Oxford Street.
Yet it’s not just banh mi that Loan is selling, but a selection of “nice, easy, typical Vietnamese dishes” such as spring rolls, banh canh, pho, bun thit nuong and chicken curry. For the UK, prices are reasonable, too. Selling at £6 (VND185,000) a go for the banh mi if you eat in-house (takeaway is cheaper), the other Vietnamese fare weighs in at around the £7.50 (VND230,000) mark. Add to this a range of weekly specials, where customers can “try dishes from different regions of Vietnam”, this is tasty, home-style Vietnamese fare served up in a casual yet contemporary setting.
Yet, as Vietnamese cuisine has become more popular and been inducted into the mainstream, a new factor has entered the market; competition.
“Because we’re so successful, it attracts other competitors,” says Loan. “So, we have new entrants in the market and we have to compete with them as well.”
The key, she explains, is to introduce new products — Loan does this twice a year — and to concentrate on quality. She adds: “In London, the service has to be good as well.”
Obsessed with Coffee
My coffee is finished and I’m hankering for another glass, but I’ve already gone through two café sua da. My head’s starting to spin. As we chat, Loan mentions that what I’ve just drunk is their own, branded coffee.
“We actually own the Saigon Coffee Company, and we supply this to other restaurants as well.”
She adds: “It’s not a major business for us, but it’s something that we have a real passion for. It’s very typical of Vietnamese culture and it’s just ingrained in how we were raised as well. When we were kids my mum used to make us iced coffee.”
Despite having grown up in the UK, when it comes to her roots, there are some things that Loan just can’t get out of her blood. One of them is banh mi, and the other, naturally, is coffee.