Pat Chaimontree was holidaying in Vietnam a few years back, and in the coastal city of Nha Trang he asked the hotel concierge to suggest somewhere to eat where he wouldn't typically see tourists. The directions Chaimontree got were a bit sketchy, but he could smell the food (probably the shrimp paste) before he actually found the dining place.
He sat beside a concrete wall in an alleyway, with scooters zipping past, and ate a crispy fried banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake) cooked over a coal fire, filled with shrimp, pork and mung beans - and he loved the experience. No tourists, just the locals and simple street food.
Nowadays, he is trying to recreate something of his Nha Trang street-vendor experience at the newly opened Vietnamese eatery Banh mi Caphe, in Hamilton's southern Victoria St.
The silvery-green painted concrete walls mirror similarly coloured alley walls in Vietnam, they're stencilled with advertising phone numbers, as you'd see there; the seating is simple stools and wooden chairs; the quirky light-fittings replicate what you'd find at street stalls. There are no scooters to hand, but a big image of them on the rear wall gives the impression they might be coming.
Then there's the food. No five-page menus to wade through here, just a lovely flavoursome collection of Vietnamese street staples: banh mi, the Vietnamese baguette sandwich after which the eatery is named; pho (pronounced fuhh), noodle soup with broth, herbs and meat; bun, a vermicelli salad; and goi, a fresh, classical Vietnamese salad. The salads are drizzled with fragrant, uplifting nuoc mam sauce (fish sauce, white vinegar, palm sugar, chilli - Chaimontree's not giving anything too specific on this).
There are also snacks in the form of summer rolls and spring rolls, plus some sweet treats and sweet drip-filter coffee (caphe) in dinky little vessels.
Chaimontree is Thai, a chef who has cooked at a number of Hamilton restaurants. His wife Anh's family is Vietnamese. Recipes are from her family, and soon he'll be joined at Banh mi by Anh's uncle Qui, a chef from Vietnam. Anh is a radiologist, and also works here.
It's been Chaimontree's dream to open a Vietnamese eatery in Hamilton. The city has long been missing this among its ethnic dining lineup, the nearest ones being up the highway in Auckland.
Chaimontree is in partnership at Banh mi with Ivan Muir, and the pair are also partners in Jam at Queenwood, and the Little J takeout coffee shop further north in Victoria St.
At Banh mi, as well as good food, you get a charming lesson on how the menu works, and Chaimontree also talks culinary history about the influence of Vietnam's longtime colonisers, the French, on the local cuisine.
The baguettes are a case in point, a French standard anointed with aioli, the traditional sauce of Provence, and filled with fresh Vietnamese ingredients and flavours. Chaimontree's baguettes arrive each day from Tommos Bakery, Glenview, owned by his wife's parents. They have the perfect crunch on the outside, and tenderness within.
Chaimontree's father-in-law kept telling him a good aioli was essential to success; he had to get it right, and there have been plenty of test runs.
Chaimontree says herbs are key to Vietnamese food - the zippy flavours of coriander and mint - along with fresh vegetables, delicious sauces, noodles and broths. "Not a lot of meat."
He adds that the Vietnamese are skilled in making the most of what's available.
He's looking forward to introducing his customers to these flavours and dishes in a Vietnamese alley in Hamilton's southend.
BANH MI (Vietnamese sandwich)
This is excellent, a lovely mix of textures, flavours and cultures. There is no specific recipe, so this is based on watching Pat Chaimontree, pictured, in action, and enjoying the end result. You need a good quality single-serve French baguette (crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, lovely yeasty aroma). Slit it open and spread with good-quality aioli. Warm slightly in the oven.
Quickly cook the meat for your filling. In this case, it was chopped chicken marinated with fresh ginger and a few other ingredients not divulged. While cooking, drizzle meat with chilli sauce and hoisin sauce, the quantity according to your taste.
To assemble, place the hot chicken in the baguette, top with shredded pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber (finely sliced lengthways), sliced fresh chilli if desired, sprigs of fresh coriander, a little drizzle of soy sauce.
Banh mi Caphe, 198/2 Victoria St, ph 07 839 1141, is open Tuesday- Sunday from 11am-4pm, and does late nights on Thursdays and Fridays. It is currently unlicensed but an application for a licence has been made.