Yin and yang, warming and cooling, pungent and sweet, starchy, and watery; balance is the cornerstone of Vietnamese food. A deeply embedded philosophy is the balance of the five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and salty. This is a concept that the six Banh siblings (Saigon Siblings) of Monsoon and Ba Bar fame, have mastered to perfection. After all, they know it by heart. It’s less of a concept, and more of a way of life, something that the Saigon siblings were born into.
From escaping Vietnam to working as a line cook, being awestruck by Seattle’s fresh seafood to giving the city one of its best Southeast Asian restaurants; Eric Banh tells their story here. The story of their family is an immigrant tale—and it’s through years of toil, turmoil, hope, hard work, anguish, and the sheer, persevered love of food, that they brought their incredible food to enrich Seattle’s culinary foodscape. The result: classic and contemporary food that highlights the best of Seattle’s local produce.
Chef and restaurateur Eric Banh has been at the helm of Seattle’s best Vietnamese cuisine for more than 20 years. Growing up in Saigon, Eric loved eating good food at every opportunity and found himself curious about cooking and ingredients at a young age.
Circa 1975 – As Saigon fell to the Communists, Mr. Thanh Minh Banh, Eric’s dad, a visionary, could see that the future was not so bright. So, he started planning his family’s escape to the west. Mr. Banh really wanted an education for his kids, and a good life for he and his wife, and that prospect no longer seemed possible in this new version of Saigon. Eric cites his late father for being his inspiration in the culinary world, naming Ba Bar after him—Ba meaning father in Vietnamese—and he enjoys sharing his learned wisdom with other young chefs encouraging them to work clean and be respectful in the kitchen.
Eric runs the show at the restaurants, alongside his other siblings. Sophie is all about ensuring that food quality and presentation are always up to par, perennially brainstorming to create new dishes, and using seasonal ingredients that harmonize with Vietnamese flavors and ingredients. Through experience, Sophie has learned that kitchen mistakes can also be delicious opportunities. “They can lead to awesome new recipes I wouldn’t have normally tried,” she says. At Monsoon, Luc Lac—wok-seared Painted Hills beef tenderloin cooked with cognac, watercress, cherry tomatoes, and lime juice is her favorite because she loves beef and the simplicity of the dish. At home, fresh rolls are close to Sophie’s heart because the dish brings her family together at the table to wrap rolls; it’s a gathering with delicious results.
“When I came to Seattle, I couldn’t find the food that I loved to eat, so it made sense to me and my family to start a restaurant, to share the flavors we loved so much in Vietnam,” Sophie Banh says. The various pho-bars around the city barely even scratch the surface of what is an absolutely delicious, complex cuisine. A huge problem with Southeast Asian cuisines is that they tend to get Americanized a fair bit. Not at Monsoon. No sirree. Here, expect an authentic Vietnamese experience (for outdoor dining or takeout).
We ordered takeout from Monsoon recently and it was one of the most enjoyable meals we’ve had for a long, long time. Everything was fresh, hot, and scrumptious. The great thing is the folks at Monsoon have tailored the menu to include only items that travel well. We started off with some yummy fresh tofu rolls, with a sweet peanut sauce. They were light and healthy, which was just as well, as our next course was a deep-fried one. The drunken chicken is pure sorcery. Yes, really. It’s fried to golden crispiness and comes smothered in a sweet-spicy sauce, with some blanched greens adding freshness to the dish. It’s crispy and really juicy at the same time.
If you’re a seafood fan, the prawn lemongrass curry is a no-brainer. It is robust in flavor with curry leaves, lemongrass, and galangal, with coconut milk to balance and tame all that spice. The freshness of the huge, tender prawns really stands out. All it really needs is some simple sticky rice to be paired with. And of course, we had to finish our meal with their banana cake, with gooey, caramelized goodness. We loved that it was cleverly paired with a savory coconut sauce, which offsets the sweetness really well.
We spoke to Eric and Sophie about their food philosophy and the changing restaurant industry in these unprecedented times….
Seattleite: What is your earliest memory of food in Saigon?
Eric: At the age of 8 years old, Mi Vit Tim was my most memorial meal in Saigon. This noodle shop was a block from our home in District one back in 1973.
Sophie: Cha Gio, which are crispy fried spring rolls. These are not your normal cha gio they are small the size of your thumb. The texture is crunchier and the color is like an off white because of the rice paper. A really good texture.
Seattleite: What was your favorite dish growing up?
Eric: Bone-in chicken lemongrass, and fisherman tamarind soup.
Sophie: It’s simple and all around the city. It’s now everywhere here in Washington State. It’s pho. The flavor is so intense from the fat of the beef. And the herbs; basil and Ngo Gai (saw leaf) make it aromatic. I ate it pretty much 3 to 4 times a week when growing up in Saigon.
Seattleite: What is an authentic Vietnamese food experience like?
Eric: Good local ingredients, along with similar flavor memories from when I was growing up.
Sophie: Half the table is full of vegetables. The other half is a ramekin of sauces. Kidding, but not kidding. That is really what it’s like. Everyone likes different nuoc cham (dipping sauce) one fish sauce, salt pepper lime juice sauce, someone else wants peanut sauce. The rest is a protein. It’s a lot of colors all around. There are so many ingredient components when we cook Vietnamese food.
Seattleite: What are a couple of your favorite street foods to enjoy when visiting Vietnam?
Eric: Banh Cuon and tomato/snail noodle soup in Hanoi. In Saigon, I always enjoy bun rieu (Ben Thanh Market). Nearby our aunt’s town, Bien Hoa, surprisingly, the best grilled goat & okras, chao dipping sauce can be found in Ho Nai. This town was found in 1954 when most Catholics from the North walked to the South to settle in new lands.
Sophie: Bun Rieu. It is a tomato broth with freshwater crab, the carb is a rice noodle, topped with ‘mam ruc’, shrimp paste, which should be set in lightly because it is salty and pungent. Then you set in fresh vegetables with chili and lime juice. The best afternoon street food.
Banh xeo is a Vietnamese pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork, mung bean. It is crispy and airy. Lettuce, young baby yu choy, and different types of mint. Then we dip and in nuoc cham fish sauce. I like it because it is earthy and crispy. You need to use your fingers. I like to eat for lunch or in the afternoon.
Seattleite: How are you changing things at Monsoon with Covid-19, during these unprecedented times?
Eric: Monsoon has had to adapt to “new” business with mostly pick-up and delivery orders. Therefore, only dishes and items that can travel well are on the present menu. All said, our team and we are fortunate to continue to have our jobs to continue to feed our loyal guests and neighbors who have been supporting our restaurant since February 1999.
Sophie: We have set our roof patio and outdoor dining to welcome customers with a rearranged floor plan to space everyone out. These are tough times and we are doing our best to have our employees and customers stay safe. Cleaning and wearing masks have been vital in giving ourselves a barrier against COVID-19. We must continue on. We have also changed our menu to cater to having Monsoon at home.