This Southeast Asian country was long a part of China, although not for the past 1,000 years. Still, its cuisine has more influence from China than the other mainland Southeast Asian countries of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. More recently, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Vietnam was a colony of France, whose culinary influence can be seen in its bánh mì baguette sandwiches and, some argue, its pho noodle soup, which is pronounced like the French word “feu,” or fire, and possibly refers to France’s version of pot roast, pot au feu, although others argue that the dish’s origins are Chinese.
Vietnamese cuisine features the aromatics of the region, including lemon grass and cilantro, and more mint than its Southeast Asian neighbors. The generally light nature of the cuisine was part of the inspiration for Asian Box, a San Francisco Bay Area chain that unabashedly calls its food Vietnamese, rather than Asian or Southeast Asian.
Restaurants specializing in pho have operated in ethnic enclaves across the country for years.
More recently — over the past decade or so — specialists in bánh mì have opened, serving grilled meats or pâtés with Vietnamese herbs and vegetables dressed in tangy sauce sandwiched in baguettes.
Although The Cheesecake Factory’s Saigon Chicken Sandwich — its version of bánh mì that it introduced several years ago — failed to resonate with customers, and ShopHouse, Chipotle’s Southeast-Asian-themed concept, ended up dropping bánh mì from its menu, the sandwich has seen success at Mama Fu’s Asian House, a 13-unit chain based in Austin, Texas with fast-casual service at lunch and full service at dinner.
Pho-inspired soup can be found at 100-unit fast-casual chain Freshii and Tom’s Urban 24, the single-unit restaurant opened last year by Smashburger founder and former McDonald’s executive Tom Ryan also has pho on its lunch rotation.