How does a seasoned chef make it outside America’s celebrity kitchens and make his mark in the fierce F&B game of the culinary capital?
Words: Christine Nunag
Photography: Limuel Dayrit
Banh Mi Vietnamese Sandwich Eatery stands out with its hip, progressively industrial look, a stark contrast from its downtown location in Angeles City’s heritage district and from what it once was. In February 2012, Rex Soriano quietly opened Banh Mi in the neighborhood as a simple take-out counter. It occupied a tiny space in front of a sari-sari store cum softdrinks dealership run by his Vietnamese mother-in-law. Back then, my companions and I snacked on hefty sandwiches paired with softdrinks served through the narrow store window. We ate right there, tambay-style – either standing, leaning against the counter, or finding anything to sit on, usually a random monoblock chair perhaps intended for their “boy” workers on break. One day they managed to fit a plastic table into the cramped area along with a few more seats. From there, I waited until I saw the one thing that I used to travel to Manila for whenever I craved Vietnamese – the real deal noodle soup, pho. In June 2013, the kiosk transformed into an enclosed 20-seater eatery to accommodate its growing customer base. Though now air-conditioned, the place kept its street-style vibe with its down-to-earth design, including my favorite spot against the glass wall — a low wooden bar-bench that lets you look out to the road outside and its passing cars and jeepneys.
Banh Mi today is a spacious restaurant that can fill up to 80 guests coming from and beyond the culinary capital. It has since paved the way for more players from Angeles City’s Vietnamese community to establish their well-loved cuisine as a permanent addition to Pampanga’s bustling food scene.
Authentic vs. traditional
Banh Mi’s takeout menu began with a few but well-thought out choices. Pan-toasted sandwiches looked familiar but were distinguishably gourmet with their impeccable presentation and skillful execution. This is where I first laid eyes on an exquisite slice of sisig terrine lying inside my cold cuts sandwich, a memorable sight which offered a sneak preview of the maker’s refined taste and advanced-level training. At the time, Soriano was gaining a reputation in our local community as “the chef from Nobu who graduated from CIA” (Culinary Institute of America in New York). Early offerings also included traditional Vietnamese fare such as fried spring rolls dipped in pineapple and alubebe (fish sauce), summer rolls with peanut sauce, savory egg crepe (banh xeo) and finally, pho.
While the menu was inspired in part by stories of Soriano’s mother-in-law about the food they cooked and ate in Vietnam with the changing seasons, the US-born Kapampangan chef combined these ideas with the Vietnamese flavor profiles he adapted while living in the US. Soriano then developed and tested these recipes with his Kapampangan-Vietnamese wife, Ivee. Today, visitors find something new in Banh Mi’s non-traditional items, such as his take on goi ga which becomes cabbage chicken salad in miso-ginger vinaigrette. While supplies such as rice paper, noodles, hot sauce and coffee come from Vietnam, Soriano makes the cold cuts, sausage and ham. Although Vietnamese guests enjoy the food, Soriano clarifies that it is more accurate to describe Banh Mi’s menu as both traditional and non-traditional. “It’s important to give justice to Vietnamese cuisine. But to me, authentic Vietnamese means that the food is cooked in Vietnam [and/or] by a Vietnamese using ingredients from that country,” he explains.
No short cuts
Through Banh Mi, Soriano succeeded in establishing Vietnamese cuisine in Pampanga. But the journey was not a walk in the park. The chef, who also worked for famous hotel and restaurant brands such as Raffles, Four Seasons, Neiman Marcus, Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck, proved through experience that a sterling background does not guarantee quick success. “School teaches discipline; working in kitchens builds professionalism,” he points out. Indeed, when we set out on our own, life teaches us a whole new set of lessons through trials and errors, successes and failures. Soriano, who used to teach international cuisine at Holy Angel University in Angeles City, always believed in a one-product business model. He cites his own start-up story and how he learned from his mistake: “I decided to sell funnel cake near a big public school in Pampanga. I didn’t listen to local advice. In the end, I realized that food is not the students’ priority. They would rather invest their time and money on cellphone load and cigarettes.”
With his growing family in mind, the new entrepreneur turned to what was closest to his heart: his comfort food. “As a student in the US with limited cash, I always went for Vietnamese food — particularly the banh mi — when I wanted good, affordable food,” Soriano shares. Inspired ideas turned into product development, until it was time to test the market. Through catering requests, the practical chef incorporated Vietnamese items into the menu. At every opportunity to contribute food — at friends’ gatherings, small potluck parties, even in funerals where, instead of the customary cash abuloy, Soriano donated sandwiches and springrolls. Meanwhile, Soriano knew about my food work when he and I first met as judges at an Ayala Mall restaurant competition in 2011. So with every Banh Mi visit with friends, he would bring out new items for sampling. These “market research” scenarios allowed the resourceful chef to gather handy insights based on the people’s reaction to his food.
Setting up a working kitchen was a huge challenge. “In the beginning, menu items were limited primarily because of the limited equipment,” he narrates. The transition from the professional kitchens to the very basic household equipment and appliances frustrated Soriano who used to work with top-of-the-line equipment custom-built to the user’s functionality and movement. In building his business, the gourmet chef found himself doing things that were not part of his job description — from carpentry, plumbing to maintenance. These are the kind of real life tests which force us out of our comfort zone. But in Soriano’s case, they brought out the chef’s innate creativity and true character.
How does one begin and maintain a food business in such a picky, hard-to-please market as Pampanga? “It’s all about educating the market,” Soriano affirms. “The locals are well-travelled, and timing was also key. Facebook was becoming popular and people were sharing experiences online.” According to Soriano, there had been previous undertakings by the Vietnamese community to set up shop in the city around the mid-2000. However, key factors had not yet come together; the market was not ready. As of this writing, there are six Vietnamese restaurants in Angeles City offering traditional and regional dishes.
Heart for service
Prior to becoming a chef, the young Soriano worked in a factory assembly line, as a busboy and bartender in a restaurant in Los Angeles, California and as banquet waiter in a 3-star hotel in Alaska. The ex-dentistry student also worked in healthcare, as a physical therapy aide for geriatric patients for two years. Soriano, who now operates his very own and growing food business, sets his focus towards maintaining quality and consistency of food as well as customer service at Banh Mi.
Excited to expand his playground and explore new business ventures, Soriano is set to launch his very own koobideh project, a curb-side pick-up grilled chicken concept — Soriano’s version of roadside lechong manok. While he loves to work with Vietnamese influences for the Filipino market, he keeps himself inspired by playing with seasonal ingredients and different themes. In October 2014, Soriano set up a separate space within the newly expanded restaurant to serve non-Vietnamese cuisine. This pop-up concept, which continues what he used to do as Rex Supperclub upon his return to the Philippines several years ago, lets Soriano serve degustation and family-style meals to a minimum group of 10 pax upon request. I have brought several groups of chefs, foodies and culinary media to these events which allowed us to experience Soriano’s masterful work honed by years of labor and sweat inside international hot kitchens. Amidst the demands of the restaurant, family and fatherhood, the passionate chef never ceases to find fun in food, to keep the fire burning.
Banh Mi Vietnamese Sandwich Eatery
1-1 Pacimar Estate, Jesus St., Bgy. Pulungbulu, Angeles City, Philippines
Phone: (63) (45) 436 2296
Mobile: (63) (999) 817 7896