Thanh Nguyen never wanted to study biochemistry. She wanted to cook.
“I came to the U.S. and went to school for my family, not for me,” said the Vietnamese-born Nguyen, 34, who, to emphasize the point, stopped one English composition class short of finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. “I wanted to make a business like my family did.”
But her parents Cong and Thanh Nguyen, who own a live seafood market in Saigon, weren’t happy, she said, when she landed in the restaurant industry with her husband, Chris Nguyen, 36. But Thanh was a natural in the kitchen. And as their company grew in the suburbs, beginning in 2012, first at Banh Mi Bar & Bistro, a Vietnamese sandwich shop in Norristown (now closed), then at the sit-down concept of Melody’s Grillhouse in Ambler, Thanh’s talent for delivering refined renditions of traditional Vietnamese cuisine was clear. One of my last restaurant meals before the pandemic was a gloriously char-kissed and flavorful lemongrass chicken at Melody’s, which is named for their youngest daughter. Chris says they’ve since mastered a faster turnaround on the dish by investing in some new equipment, but even beforehand, it was worth the 30-minute wait.
An even bolder vision for another restaurant, though, was coming into view for Gabriella’s Vietnam, the couple’s latest venture in South Philadelphia, named for their 3-year-old daughter, which opened in February in the East Passyunk Avenue shell of the former Saté Kampar.
“I’m not going to just open a Vietnamese restaurant, I’m going to show the world what real Vietnamese food is,” vowed Thanh, suddenly invoking her mother. “You will see: I will make you proud.”
For Thanh, that has meant unveiling a repertoire of vividly flavored seafood dishes and regional specialties like the leaf-bundled dumplings and pan-crisped mini-crepes rarely seen in Philly. She has also unleashed the fully fermented funk of the purple shrimp paste dip that anchors the Bún Đậu Mắm Tôm vermicelli platter, a dish now trending in Hanoi, she says.
It arrives with head-turning fanfare on a bamboo tray lined with banana leaves laden with crispy pork patties and fried tofu cubes, braised pork knuckle slices and chunks of blood sausage studded with sticky rice. Served with folded sheets of pressed rice noodles for wrapping, along with an herbal bouquet of cilantro, minty rau ram and fuzzy perilla leaves, this feast of Southeast Asian flavors is one of the most intriguing new grazing gems in Philly.
The Nguyens fretted over whether the heady pungency of the mắm tôm dip would fly on East Passyunk. Its brackish swagger isn’t for everyone, says Chris, who grew up in Warminster with parents who immigrated from Central and North Vietnam: “Even a lot of Vietnamese Americans find it too strong and ask for a different sauce.”
Gabriella’s friendly staff did a fine job of elaborating on details of the menu, this vermicelli platter and its intricate components. And I loved how that dip’s salty punch, brightened with a squirt of kumquat, dialed up the umami even more. And Gabriella’s customers seem to agree, as virtually every table I saw ordered this platter to jump-start their feast — often flanked by BYO bottles of strong spirits Chris says are a generational tell, with whiskey for the millennials and Cognac more typical for the aunts and uncles still sipping the lingering colonial influence of France on Vietnamese culture.
Most of the rest of Gabriella’s menu, meanwhile, is drawn directly from what’s happening in Vietnam right now based on Thanh’s yearly travels back home. Philadelphia, of course, has a deeply rooted Vietnamese community that is among the largest on the East Coast. But the Nguyens believe the city’s Vietnamese restaurant lag behind, with menus largely stuck in the street food standards that arrived with the postwar diaspora in the 1980s: “In Vietnam, the food has continued evolving,” says Thanh.
I’ve come to cherish the city’s wealth of pho halls, broken rice platters, bun bo hue bowls, and banh mi shops with almost weekly visits through Washington Avenue, Kensington, and beyond. I’ve tasted sparks of some fresh ideas in the weekly Vietnamese meal kits from Jacob Trinh at Kampar Kitchen. But no other Vietnamese restaurant I’ve encountered here has a chef cooking quite like Thanh is now at Gabriella’s. And it was thrilling.
Here comes a bamboo tray piled high with 10 tiny dishes of water fern dumplings, delicate Central Vietnamese-style rice cakes steamed to pliant little discs in their little cups, then topped with ground dried shrimp and pork cracklings that shimmer beneath splashes of nước chấm dip. The same batter takes on a completely different texture when wrapped into Hue “tamales,” the softer cakes absorbing an almost tea-like scent from banana leaf wrappers.
There are lemongrass chicken dumplings with sweet chili sauce, and steamy banana leaf bonbons filled with clear tapioca centers encasing crunchy shrimp and nuggets of pork. But there are so many other highlights to order.
The Nguyens brought special cast-iron pans from Central Vietnam to make that region’s smaller, crispier rendition of the banh xeo crepes that are more common locally in the Southern style, generally softer, flimsier, plate-sized affair. I loved the crackle of these palm-sized half moons made from blended rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric whose thicker sides sandwiched prawns, pork and bean sprout threads that sopped-up the sweet fish sauce dip. (If the Mexican birria craze ever makes the tempting cross-cultural leap in South Philly, these taco-shaped crepes are a fine place to start.)
For Thanh, sometimes it’s a key ingredient that brings her closer to her roots, like the moist sea salt from Southern Vietnam she grinds with garlic, sugar, and Thai chiles to rub into the fresh-killed yellow-skinned chickens she roasts with honey and scallions. The salt’s oceanic edge is also key to the lime and pepper dip that makes her Bò Lúc Lắc one of the best around, the soy-pepper marinade on the shaken beef’s pound-sized portion of tenderloin charred in the wok to a smoky caramel that spirals on the taste buds after a dunk into the salty sour dip.
I did not yet get a chance to try the molten Laughing Cow cheese dip that Chris says is the rage in Vietnam right now, and accompanies all the sizzling meat and egg platters that are popular at Gabriella’s brunch. (Count me in for an order of the fresh sardines in tomato sauce). But I can vouch for the benefits of the salted egg yolk trend: It lent an extra savory and richness to Thanh’s crisply fried soft-shell crabs.
Those Thai Brussels sprouts with cashews?
“Not traditional,” concedes Chris, who says they once detoured to experience a suburban P.F. Chang’s and, well, “we fell in love with that dish.”
An redefined viewpoint
They’re undeniably delicious. And I’m sure the dish will be a big seller with the diverse crowds that flow through East Passyunk’s once-again vibrant corridor, where the Nguyens found Saté Kampar’s distressed walls and muraled Malaysian street scenes equally evocative of a Vietnamese market. They’ve been lightly touched. But the parallels between the two restaurants don’t end there. Thanh’s mission to update and redefine Philadelphians’ view of Vietnamese food is very much reminiscent of what Ange Branca has done for Malaysian cuisine here, too, never shying from a pungent durian or potent sambal’s sting to faithfully convey love and passion for a faraway home.
And for Thanh, you can always bet on her birthright as the daughter of seafood merchants to deliver. Whether it’s in her glorious Emperor’s fried rice laced with crab legs, prawns, and clams in a bed of turmeric golden grains toasted in rendered crackling pork fat, or the downy softness of whole branzino grilled inside banana leaves served beneath fried shallots that make for another dynamic bite when wrapped inside a lettuce leaf, or softened rice paper rounds stuffed with noodles and more herbs, there is a subtle elegance to these dishes that’s special.
They are bolstered by the many secret touches shared with Thanh by her mom, like the whiff of Vietnamese coriander that lends the lime-pepper dip an herbal kiss, or the idea of cooking shrimp in coconut water to accent its natural sweetness, or the use of condensed milk instead of sugar to enrich a chicken curry boosted by the family’s fresh lemongrass-lime leaf paste — a coveted dish that won’t return until the cooler weather settles in.
“Her mom has so many tips and recipes, that food, I think, has brought them closer together,” says Chris, who says Thanh’s parents are finally coming around. “They’re definitely proud of her now.”
The true success of Thanh Nguyen’s vision unfolding at Gabriella’s, though, is that still feels like just the beginning.
The Inquirer is currently not giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
1837 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19148, 272-888-3298; https://www.gabriellasasian.com/
Hours: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 5-10 p.m.., Sundays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Entrees, $14-$45 (taxes included)
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, especially weekends.
Street parking only.