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Chef's Table: From Vietnam with love

What is Vietnamese food? It depends who you ask and what part of Vietnam they favour. Vietnamese food is divided into three areas – north, central and south.

When Cathy Truong set out to open a restaurant in St. Albert, she wanted to honour the varying tastes and culture of central Vietnam where she was born.

Thus she opened The Red Brick Wall on Hebert Road, named after the UNESCO protected city Hué. This magnificent city served as Vietnam’s capital under the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. Unfortunately during the Vietnam War close to 90 per cent of the palace’s important historical buildings and walls were destroyed.

While searching for a standout restaurant name, Truong found an image of a broken red brick fortification strewn with rubble. In the centre was a hole where passersby could catch a glimpse of the imperial palace.

“To me the image was interesting and told a story of Hué and of the emperor who ruled it. The palace was built around a huge area. During the war, the North sent troops to Hué and it was hard to avoid fighting around the imperial palace,” says Truong.

Visual artist Tracy Aguilar painted the symbolic image across the restaurant’s feature wall showcasing both an important moment in history as well as the cultural resilience of the Vietnamese people.

“Even though I grew up here since I was three, I’m still devoted to my traditions and roots and that’s in Vietnam. Even after the struggles I’ve been through as an immigrant, I’m still in one piece like the brick wall,” Truong says with a laugh.

Truong, with her partner Wade Ngo, also managing chef at Pagolac Restaurant in Edmonton, have built a full menu that sticks to the main dishes of Vietnam – pho noodle soup, BúnHué (spicy beef noodle soup), Vietnamese spring rolls, Vietnamese salad rolls, pork and shrimp dumplings, banana leaf wraps, as well as vermicelli and rice bowls.

“We also have Vietnamese submarines. They were introduced during the French colonization. It’s a traditional French baguette with fillings. A lot of Vietnamese restaurants don’t offer it even though Vietnamese food is known for its submarines.”

The Banh mi, as it’s known in Vietnam, is made from a light, fluffy dough with a crunchy, crisp texture that is described as “melt-in-your-mouth.”

Truong’s ultimate culinary vision is to bring out a dish's ingredients natural flavours without overpowering it with extra salt.

“It’s about using as much of the natural ingredients to bring out the flavours. For instance, I use more bones in broth and I use natural ingredients like daikon, ginger, lemongrass and other such herbs to enhance flavours.”

Early life

Truong was born in a small fishing village in Central Vietnam near Hué. When she was a year old, her young mother and father decided to pack up and escape Vietnam. The war had ended in 1975 and conditions under the Communist government policies and economic sanctions had become progressively worse.

“They weren’t happy with the Communist government. The United States lost control and there were a lot of changes being made. A lot of us thought it was time to find freedom.”

There was one problem. It was illegal to leave the country. Truong’s parents decided to take their chances for a better life. One night they boarded a boat along with 40 other people and set sail for open water.

“The night we left, police came to our house searching and they raided other homes and tried to find us. But we were already gone. There was a lot of commotion and the strong police presence was there to enforce regulations from the northern government.”

The boat sailed for 10 days with little food and water, eventually reaching safety at Macau, a region on the south coast of China. The world media would later dub the refugees leaving the tiny country under cover of darkness as “boat people,” about 800,000 in total.

“Although my mother was pregnant, she saved her food scraps for me. We managed good weather conditions and didn’t meet pirates. When we reached land, a coastguard escorted us to a refugee camp.

“In other countries like Thailand and Malaysia, they would tug you out to sea and leave you or sink the boat. We weren’t welcome there and they wouldn’t take the responsibility to rescue us.”

Once settled at a Macau refugee camp, the family wanted to go with friends to the United States. However, Truong’s mother was in the late stages of pregnancy and was not allowed to fly. After the birth of her sister, the family was given the option to resettle in Canada and immediately accepted.

“We learned to adapt to the environment. My father did snow removal in winter. He made use of the snow. We adapted to the country we were in and it was up to us to do what we would do with the opportunity.”

In summer, both parents founded and operated Asian Gardeners, the first Vietnamese gardening and landscaping business in Edmonton.

“I’ve always been used to the structure of a family business. I was involved as young as 10, cutting grass and raking leaves. We had minimal employees. My mother was involved in lawn maintenance and landscaping and that’s how I learned how to cook.”

While mom and dad toiled beautifying homes, as the oldest of four siblings, Truong was tasked with cooking basic meals for everyone – simple, filling and nutritious dishes such as steamed rice, vegetable soup, stir-fry and stew.

Her culinary expertise and reputation spread. Soon she was cooking meals for friends and used the opportunity to experiment with different dishes.

A graduate of J. Percy Page, Truong struggled choosing an after-school career. During this decision-making period, she worked as a server at The Mikado, Edmonton’s first Japanese restaurant.

“I was always trying to do small businesses on the side. At Christmas, I’d set up small kiosks in malls and sell Asian imports, clothing and bags. For a while, I even helped run a friend’s clothing store. I was trying to get a feel of what worked for me.”

By 2012, she’d branded her company, Divine Imports, and opened a shop on Perron St. It was a success. With the St. Albert Farmers' Market at her doorstep, she would often stroll along the stalls and check out the merchandise.

“I really appreciated what they were doing. The only thing lacking was a variety of food.”

Habitually on the lookout for new business opportunities, Truong approached market organizers about setting up a food tent to sell Vietnamese skewers, submarines, spring rolls and salad rolls. Shoppers loved it.

The next season, Truong and her partner, Ngo, arrived at the market with a 25-foot long refurbished food truck dubbed the Lemongrass Grill.

“The response was even busier. Everyone was happy with what we had to offer.”

Popular with the entire region, the Lemongrass Grill was soon spotted at various festivals including Boonstock, Seven Music Fest, Sonic's music festival and Canada Day at the Legislature.

“I’m a hustle and bustle girl. I’m not a behind-the-desk computer girl. I was just waiting for the right time. I believed one day, I’d open a brick and mortar restaurant where I could work all year. What better time to do that than now? It was the next step in my career.”

While searching for space, the home-style cook again turned to St. Albert’s small town vibe.

“I didn’t want to be in an over-saturated market like Edmonton. I thought St. Albert deserved another Vietnamese restaurant. And I decided to give it a catchy name.”

The Red Brick Wall, which opened in March 2019, will be expanding its menu this summer. Check out their Facebook page for up-to-date information.

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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