It is a fairly quiet late afternoon at Vina Vietnamese Street Food.
People are either in town or leaving due to Thanksgiving hovering just around the bend. Rather than the noisy chat of diners, there is the sound of slurping as the families enjoy their huge bowls of pho in a seeming deep concentration. They pontificate with each hearty inhale of noodle and broth, and carefully select a bit of brightness from plates filled with basil, cilantro, bean sprouts and jalapenos. Some dash a little heat from thick red chili oil. A bit of squeeze from a lime cuts the burn enough and adds an intended citrus luster to the swirling bowl of craft and tradition.
For devotees of Asian cuisine, this means that something special is going on. Vina Vietnamese Street Food at 4230 N. Oracle Road is new to the Oracle and Wetmore shopping area block but they are hardly new to the Tucson culinary scene.
Started three years ago as a food truck, then known as Vina Baguette, chef and owner Linh Nguen was usually found parked in front of a liquor store on Broadway and Cherry, only occasionally moving from that spot for certain events or parties. That semi-hidden location quickly became a destination point for people seeking out the popular sandwich known as the bahn mi. The bahn mi came about when French colonists resided in Vietnam, bringing with them a soft centered crusty loaf (the baguette, hence the old Vina namesake) and it didn't take long for locals to find a new use for the bread. Using ingredients indigenous to Indochina, the bahn mi began its slow rise to fame and eventually made it to the States where it continues to grow in popularity.
Luckily for us here in Tucson, Linh is quite the master of the sandwich and he has his mother and heritage to thank for that.
"I was born in Saigon. Very big city, very very busy," notes Linh behind his brand new, hardly used stainless steel prep table. "The bahn mi was so popular there that when I moved to the United States I knew that I wanted to make them here. It was not just from watching and learning from the people in the streets making them, but from my mother as well. She taught me everything. Very good cook."
Linh then leans in with a mischievous look in his eye and whispers, "But I think I am the better cook now."
The bahn mi may have helped him with win foodie hearts, but it's his other items, such as the pho, where he is able to explore and expand with the new space.
"Tucson is such a good city for food, but it lacks real Vietnamese flavor," he says, lading broth into a bowl before filling it with noodles, beef and pork. "Vina, to me, is the real Vietnam. This is the flavor I remember as a little boy. This is the flavor I want to bring to Tucson."
Because of that flavor it didn't take long for Linh and his family to make the leap from truck to structure. Having only been open a few weeks, people familiar with the name, and the food, are beginning to make the trek from the old parking lot on Broadway to his new concept that has a parking area of its own. By the almost inebriated looks on his guests' faces, the change has been a welcome one.
Over new paint and lacquered floors, the smell of the pho broth is intoxicating. A family recipe that has been handed down to him, via his mother, of course, Linh infuses beef bone and pork shoulder letting it simmer for a minimum of 24 hours giving the succulent brew a rich color and intense character. Throw in some hand-made noodles, fresh herbs and rare meats, Vina's pho is going to make a lot of shoppers in the area, and the general people of Tucson, extremely happy.
But it was his sandwiches that got him to where they are today. And Linh doesn't want anyone to forget that.
"When she heard about our success my mother started calling me her little bahn mi boy," he says. "I like that. That's me ... the bahn mi boy!".