Viva The Difference
With authentic recipes, trendy cuisine and the force of family, Viva Restaurant raises the bar for Vietnamese dining
By Robin Summerfield
It’s 3 p.m. at Viva restaurant and owner Phuong Nguyen scurries between the kitchen and dining room. The lunch rush is technically over but several new tables of customers have wandered in, all jonesing for a Vietnamese food fix.
They’re here for the generous plates of expertly seasoned barbecued pork, the sweet heat of stewed basa fillets, heaping bowls of citrus and Thai basil-spiked vermicelli noodles, bánh mi subs and many other dishes of authentic Southeast Asian cuisine.
Viva is a gem in Winnipeg’s bustling ethnic-food scene.
Tucked on the main floor of a two-storey office building in the West End, the 50-seat eatery is easy to miss.
Yet the family-owned and -operated business isn’t a new kid on this block. It has been 18 years since opening day. Despite a few lean years in the beginning, due in part to local diners’ unfamiliarity of the cuisine, the restaurant forged ahead.
Indeed, Viva’s story—an immigrant family opens a restaurant, serves delicacies from back home and everybody pitches in—is a familiar one. Through hard work, obligation and the enlistment of family members young and old, Viva supports the entire clan.
Phuong’s uncle originally opened the restaurant in 1993, enlisting his two sisters, Ha (Phuong’s mom) and Linh Tran as cooks. They learned family recipes from their older sister, who owns a Vietnamese restaurant in California.
Phuong, 26, bought the family business in January 2009 from his uncle. But he started helping out in the kitchen at age 13, cutting vegetables and doing other prep work at his mother’s side. Eight family members, including Phuong’s two brothers and dad also help out today.
Watching Linh expertly man a sizzling hot wok while similtaneously tending barbecued pork on the grill, it’s clear she’s in her element inside the compact kitchen.
“I love to make food here and I love to make food for my kids,” says Linh, a mother of three.
She prides herself on making lighter, less-oily and fresher fare that doesn’t bog down diners.
A function of political history and geographic proximity, French, Chinese and Indian influences—baguettes, chow mein and curries, respectively—all populate this exotic cuisine. Fresh, flash stir-fried vegetables and an abundance of cilantro, lime, basil, mint and jalapeño are staple ingredients.
Today in Winnipeg, a vast number of regulars, mostly non-Vietnamese, call Viva a favourite.
“I see them walk through the door. We nod our heads and I know what they want,” says Phuong.
The dishes featured on these pages—deluxe vermicelli with barbecued pork, grilled shrimp and spring rolls, fish stew, bánh mì and shrimp and sour soup—are traditional, yet approachable dishes that any home cook could easily introduce at the family dinner table.
Back at the restaurant, the majority of herbs and spices, which season every dish at the eatery, come directly from Vietnam.
Whenever any family member goes back home for a holiday, they are enlisted with a special task: Pack light, take extra suitcases, and bring back as many herbs, spices, pastes and sauces as you can carry.
So about three or four times a year, someone delivers the goods.
Viva does a bustling business. Locally, they have elevated Vietnamese dining to a new level inside their modern, comfortable and stylish dining room. (Phuong’s own photographs of dramatic, colour-saturated, Winnipeg cityscapes hang on the walls.)
Linh credits increasing food sophistication locally, as evinced in part by the vast and growing number of sushi restaurants, for helping people discover her cuisine.
Indeed, Vietnamese food, near and far, is certainly hot these days.
The reasons are obvious. It’s simple, healthy and fresh food that tastes great.
Bánh mì, with its savoury slices of perfectly grilled pork, fresh, crisp veggies and cilantro on crusty buns, are currently en vogue street food in North America’s top food cities.
Meanwhile, pho (pronounced fa), traditional rare beef, tripe and rice noodle bowls piled high with crisp bean sprouts, lime and fresh basil leaves, is a flavourful meal in a bowl gaining popularity in other cultures.
For Viva’s base of loyal and growing customers, pho is just the beginning of the love affair with the country’s cuisine.
“It’s comfort food,” Phuong says. “People can eat it in the morning, at lunch and for dinner.”
It’s no surprise Winnipeggers are eagerly digging into Viva’s comfort food.
The family’s devotion to delivering authentic food, just like back home, makes Viva a top dining destination every time.