Nhan Vo and Andrew Dinh Vo on bún bò Huế and the Future of Cafe Nhan
The team behind South Philly's Cafe Nhan talk about building out a menu and working together as a mother-son duo.
Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philly’s dynamic food and beverage scene. For the complete archives, go here.
Ask a Philly restaurant industry professional where they eat on their days off, and a significant number will mention Cafe Nhan. The menu at this small Vietnamese restaurant in South Philly is packed with heavy hitters: exemplary phở and bánh mì, crispy chicken wings — but also regional dishes like bún bò Huế, a rich, beef-based soup with lemongrass and rounded thick noodles.
The dish is a specialty of owner Nhan Vo, who grew up in Huế. Nhan, along with her son Andrew Dinh Vo, run the cafe together. At a recent weekday lunch, I ordered the braised catfish, a spicy-sweet dish with pops of black pepper and caramelized fish sauce. The combination of flavors is a signature of Vietnamese food, Andrew says, but it’s also a testament to his mother’s impeccable palate. Cafe Nhan’s catfish is one of a few dishes that the mother-son duo has recently added to the menu. Now that the restaurant team is fully staffed, Nhan and Andrew have the capacity to dream up new dishes in ways they couldn’t in years past.
I sat down with Nhan and Andrew to talk about what makes their Vietnamese food so special, how they work together, and the future of Cafe Nhan.
How did Cafe Nhan start?
Nhan: I started out doing just takeout, two doors down from here. I always enjoyed cooking and seeing my friends and my family enjoy the food. I don’t have any professional training, just home cooking. At the time, one of my friends had the place and I just took over the store. It was an open kitchen and we just served bánh mì and soup. I had one other person who managed takeout, and customers supported us and they loved my food. They started to be like, “Can we sit here and eat?”
Andrew: There would literally be people standing up eating bowls of hot soup. We were like, “I think it’s time to move to a larger space.” We moved into this space in 2017.
Who were your first customers?
Nhan: A lot of them were college students from Vietnam, and they would say to me, “You’re my mom away from home.” Because my food is really home cooking. When they eat it, it reminds them of cooking from back home.
Andrew: A lot of the dishes are things she would make for me when I was growing up [in Atlantic City], as a special treat or something. It’s exactly how she cooked at home.
When you say your food is home cooking, what does that mean to you?
Andrew: My mom has a very good palate and strong opinions, and it’s how she cooks, but we also never wanted this place to feel like a cafeteria or like you’re just a number when you come in here. She makes it feel like you’re walking into someone’s home. So, you know, if you had a long day, here’s a hot bowl of soup. It’s that type of feeling.
What’s your most popular dish?
Nhan: Bún bò Huế.
Andrew: It’s a beef and lemongrass-based broth, with fermented shrimp paste and a lot of fish sauce. Then we add in pig’s blood and pig’s feet, and there’s brisket. I know a lot of people don’t do pork for different reasons, so we can leave that out.
Nhan: We really try to make the customer happy. If people don’t like spicy food, we sometimes will do half the bún bò Huế broth and half phở broth, because the phở isn’t spicy at all.
How has the menu evolved since you opened the larger location in 2017?
Nhan: I never wanted a big menu. I’m very controlling about what we serve. I want to make sure that even if you come in here and we don’t have your favorite thing, there’s something else we can serve you that you’re going to love, that’s going to leave you feeling happy. We have started adding things recently because we have all the staff we need, so we have time to try new things a little more.
Where do ideas for new dishes come from?
Andrew: Some of them are kind of my American part coming out. Like the chicken wings. I was really craving wings during COVID, and I figured I have a kitchen here, so maybe I should just make them. They’re super simple: fish sauce brine for 48 hours, then a flour dredge with cornstarch. They’re really well-seasoned, and fried until they’re crispy. No dipping sauce or anything, I just want them to be super crispy when you bite into them.
Nhan: We also added braised catfish recently, because I made it for a staff meal and one of our regulars saw me eating it and said, “Oh, what is that?” so I gave him some and now it’s on the menu. It’s traditionally a clay-pot dish, but you make a really dark caramel sauce and then we add coconut soda, and cook that down. It’s really a strong flavor; you need to eat it with rice, because it’s really spicy, really sweet, lots of chilies and black pepper. But it all gets perfectly balanced.
What are you most proud of about the cafe?
Nhan: For me personally, I could not have imagined how much love we have here. The customers come in and make us feel really proud. And, with Andrew, he has a lot more to learn but he’s grown tremendously.
Andrew: It’s a very mom answer.
Nhan: I’m really proud that he wants to do this with me six days a week.
Andrew: I was going to say something similar. Before the restaurant, our relationship wasn’t always great. But the restaurant has made us closer, and I’m proud of that.