2017 has been my year of ramen. From Momofuku in New York City, some side street vendor in Vietnam that I can’t pronounce, to High Five Ramen in Chicago, I have been obsessed with the noodles of my college days. (And who am I kidding, most of my 20s as well!) And now we have this amazing creation in Fort Wayne at a local business called Banh Mi Pho Shop)!
Although the word ramen comes from the Chinese, there is a heated debate as to whether the dish itself originated in Japan or China. Regardless, instant ramen was invented by the Taiwanese-Japanese Momofuku Ando, and was named the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century. The main component of any ramen is steaming hot noodles served in a rich and salty soup broth, but that is where the similarity between our college dorm hot pot ramen and the ramen of today ends. From the broth, to the spices, to the meat, and toppings ramen is vastly different from shop to shop…but that’s what makes it fun for both chefs and diners alike!
Banh Mi Pho Shop is located at the former Tom’s Donuts on 1925 Fairfield Avenue and opened this past June. Don’t let its newness fool you, however. It is the sister location of the popular Vietnamese shop, Banh Mi Barista, which opened August 2012 on 5320 Coldwater Road.
The original restaurant started with owners Will Le, his sister Thao Le, and niece Hien Le. Thirty-nine-year-old Will has been working in the food industry since high school (including Fort Wayne’s beloved West Coast Grill) and loves to cook. While 30-year-old Thao worked at a pharmaceutical lab in Indy, she always had a love for food and eating out as did her foodie niece, Hien. The original Banh Mi Barista is well known for its phenomenal customer service, amazing bubble teas, and Vietnamese staples such as pho and bánh mì sandwiches.
One year ago, Thao took a break to travel. While she grew up in Fort Wayne, she wanted to experience the culinary trends and staples in various parts of the world, including her homeland of Vietnam. Co-owner Hien joined her for a month in Vietnam (as did yours truly for a much shorter stint!).
I sat with Thao to ask about her experience in Vietnam this past April.
“I was born in Vietnam and still have family in southern Vietnam,” said Thao. “I have always appreciated the unique flavors and textures, but this trip made me expand my taste buds to appreciate northern Vietnamese food as well. I also learned how to make bánh mì (bread) from scratch when I was there.”
Thao would get up for weeks at 5 AM to master the art of making this local cuisine. Now that’s dedication! This love and appreciation of the Vietnamese cuisine is a hallmark of their restaurant and resonates in everything they do.
“We use fresh and local ingredients so our specials are normally centered around what we are able to find at the market,” said Thao. “I love to support local whenever we can with fresh meat from LaOtto meats and fresh produce from the market. I want our clients to have the best. This may be their first time trying something Vietnamese and I want to be amazing!”
This love for their clients is how their new shop came to be. Thao and Will saw the Fairfield location and thought it would serve as a central location and help expand their growing brand.
“I grew up in the South Side of Fort Wayne. I love seeing how much Fort Wayne is growing and I want to be a part of it. Many of our clients are our friends and we genuinely enjoy getting to know them,” Thao was quick to note.
While Banh Mi Barista and Banh Mi Pho share many common items, including their infamous bubble teas and their namesake Banh Mi sandwiches, the new shop was meant to be more of a glimpse into the soul of the Vietnamese culture. Banh Mi Pho is decorated with pictures from Thao and Hien’s trip to Vietnam including family photos and native art work. One of the most creative pieces is an interactive 3D chalk wall where you can snap picts of your friends eating with ginormous chopsticks or slurping a gargantuan bubble tea.
Initially when Banh Mi Pho started, they were planning to do a different special every Wednesday. The first week was a bao bun, the second week was ramen and the rest was history.
“We had a huge demand for the ramen after the first week.” Thao looks pointedly at me as she states this, because I may have relentlessly hounded her to add it to her weekly menu after tasting my first bowl. “There were a number of people who heard about it, but weren’t able to make it in time..plus we ran out the first Wednesday.”
This is where the love of clients comes in. When Thao realized how much demand there was for ramen she added it as a main staple to their menu first on Tuesdays and then adding Wednesday to keep up with the insatiable demand.
“I’ve been cooking for five years as Will’s sous chef and what I bring to the dish is love,” said Thao. “Every bowl has layers of flavor and complexity and I change it each week depending on what I am in the mood to make. I love to experiment with the toppings.”
From a delicious savory vegetarian ramen, to the creamy pork and beef ramen and one of my favorites, the flavorful pork belly ramen, you will not be disappointed! For those with a small appetite, there is a baby ramen option. With each bowl featuring fresh ingredients like bok choy, shitake mushrooms, radishes, soft boiled eggs, and even baby papaya, it is easy to see how it has quickly become a local phenom.
If you come on a non-ramen day, there are plenty of other items to choose from on their expansive menu and for all you vegetarians out there, be sure to check out their veggie pho served up piping hot every Monday.
Overwhelmed with too many options? Tell the server what you like, they are quite skilled in matching clients with the perfect dish (including my husband who now loves passion fruit bubble tea sans bubbles) My faves? Spicy pork belly ramen (you can add spice to taste), avocado smoothie with coconut milk and a little honey, the Korean BBQ Banh Mi, the BMB rice dish, and of course the pho.