A meal at Banh's Cuisine. Photo by Brett Villena

Banh’s Cuisine | 750 9th St, Durham | 919-286-5073

On a Saturday morning at Banh’s Cuisine, the line shifts and morphs as the door swings open and shut. There is no music playing, just the muffled whispers of customers and scrape of steel spatulas against cast iron woks from the back of the restaurant.

Above the counter, the restaurant menu lists Chinese dishes such as kung pao chicken, sweet and sour chicken, and fried wontons. Continue reading, and you’ll also see Vietnamese dishes such as chicken curry, chicken and broccoli in sate sauce, and the imperial roll.

But the heart of the Banh’s menu, one that draws regulars back on Wednesdays and Saturdays, isn’t posted here. Manuever toward the back of the restaurant, past the cash register and the tables of customers leaning over steamy plates, and you’ll encounter a corkboard with traditional Vietnamese specials tacked to it.

These specials, which are available just twice a week, include dishes like pho chay, bun ga, chicken turnovers, and the popular vegetarian plate.

Banh’s Cuisine, commonly referred to as Banh’s, was opened in 1988, by Chi Banh and her family. At first, the Ninth Street restaurant primarily served Chinese dishes with a few Vietnamese options, such as chicken curry (cà ri gà) and the imperial roll (chả giò) that Chi and Chan, Chi’s brother, believed would work with the American palate.

“We are from Vietnam and our ancestors are from China,” Chi says. “So we are Chinese Vietnamese.”

The first big wave of Vietnamese refugees settling in the United States came in 1975, followed by two more waves in the late ’70s and late ’80s. But in those early years, Chan recalls, it was still difficult to source Vietnamese ingredients such as fish sauce. Because Vietnamese restaurants were rare in Durham and unfamiliar to most Americans, the Banh family chose to focus on the cuisine that would be familiar to their clientele—Chinese food.

“Every Vietnamese restaurant we knew that opened [would] close within a year,” Chan says. “That’s why when we opened, we only did [Vietnamese foods] on Saturdays.”

Around the time that the family opened Banh’s, Chan recounts, he would only see the same three businesses, everywhere he went: a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant, and a video rental store.

The widespread popularity of Chinese food and lack of access to many Vietnamese ingredients made opening a hybrid Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant the clear path forward.

Chi chose to open the restaurant on Ninth Street, which put them in good company alongside businesses like the Regulator Bookshop, Ninth Street Bakery, and Wellspring. The Banh family found that these businesses catered to a crowd that was willing to try new things. Ninth Street patrons naturally became the early adopters of Banh’s Chinese and their Vietnamese specials.

Early on, Chi and Chan picked up on the number of vegetarians that came into the restaurant.

“We used to only have a stir-fry, you know, just mixed vegetables, and people started asking for more,” Chan recalls.

Chan took the feedback to heart and started experimenting with tofu. The vegetarian plate was born and added to the specials board. Nowadays, the customers that seek out the dish comment on how soft the interior of the tofu is and how light and crispy the crust is.

“I grew up in Hong Kong …. I have quite a refined palate for tofu,” says Christina Chia, a regular at Banh’s for 25 years. “And I feel like that dish [the vegetarian plate] is something I’ve never had anywhere else. It’s so specific to them, and it’s so perfect.”

“Even people that are not vegetarian that we know come in and get the vegetarian plate,” Chan explains. “They just like the tofu.”

The vegetarian plate consists of triangular slabs of tofu lightly fried and topped with black bean sauce. Accompaniments include a mound of sticky rice sprinkled with sesame seeds and ground peanuts and smoky wok-seared broccoli or a vegetarian salad roll.

“Our friends will go to San Francisco and ask for a vegetarian plate, and there’s no such thing,” Chan says. “When they go to the heart of San Francisco, to all the Vietnamese Chinese places, and want to eat the black bean tofu and there’s no such thing. So, we are proud to say that the vegetarian plate [is something] we came up with.”

The Vietnamese population in the United States has grown steadily over the years, from roughly 231,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2022. North Carolina’s growth has followed suit—census data shows that Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic population in the state, with the Vietnamese community making up a significant portion of that population—and so has the availability of Vietnamese food.

Several Vietnamese restaurants have opened in the last 30 years that serve familiar, delicious food to the community, such as Pho & Poke House on Erwin Road and Taste Vietnamese Cuisine in Morrisville, and many local groceries, like the expansive Li Ming’s Global Market, now carry Vietnamese staples.

Amid these changes, Banh’s Vietnamese specials have stood the test of time. In response to the popularity of the specials, the restaurant eventually expanded the menu to Wednesdays. And regulars have factored these days into their schedules.

“If it’s Wednesday [or Saturday], you don’t even have to say what that means, it means you’re going to Banh’s,” says Joe Schwartz, a local chef whose restaurant of Jewish Southern fare, Max Jr’s, will open in the Brightleaf District this fall.

Though the vegetarian plate is the most popular special, regulars have good things to say about each and every dish. Many regulars opt for the noodle soups, such as the pho chay or the hu tieu, which are especially recommended in the winter.

“They only had the beef noodle soup two or three times a year,” Chia recalls. “I remember that, on a [rainy] day like today, how perfect that is.”

Situated by Old West Durham, Trinity Park, and Duke’s East Campus, Banh’s has become a comfort food mecca for students and locals alike. The restaurant is cozy, with two- or four-top options perfect for a small group or for dining alone with a book. Part of the restaurant’s comfort derives from its customer service: Chi greets customers and works the register, bringing out food, utensils, and condiments in a calculated order.

It’s clear from the calmness of the crowd surrounding the counter during a lunch or dinner rush that customers put a great deal of trust in the Banh’s experience. Chi and Chan have built a place where newcomers can taste something unique that will keep them coming back, and regulars can enjoy the wholesome comfort food they’ve become familiar with.

“You see other chefs eating Banh’s on their off days,” says Schwartz, “It’s something that’s presented humbly and tells a story of who they are and who Durham is.”

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