How Monsoon and Ba Bar Transformed Seattle’s Vietnamese Food Scene

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Fragrant pho and crispy chicken wings Bar Ba and the claypot of catfish and cracked imperial rolls at Monsoon are some of the best-known Vietnamese dishes in the city. Monsoon is the obvious choice for those looking to eat Vietnamese food but want somewhere with more of a fine dining vibe than their neighborhood joint pho, and Ba Bar is the place for those who want to have Vietnamese noodles made with grass fed beef and local duck or chicken.

But siblings Eric and Sophie Banh, who opened Monsoon Seattle together in 1999, never planned on owning five restaurants. After moving to Canada as “boat people” fleeing the Vietnam War after spending months in a refugee camp in Malaysia, Eric and Sophie opened Monsoon on a whim with money borrowed from their family. , driven by the love of food. The restaurant became the city’s first fine-dining Vietnamese restaurant, forever changing the scene by bringing Chinese-influenced Vietnamese fine-dining dishes to Seattle.

Steamed black cod with monsoon vermicelli.
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A gray ceramic plate filled with fresh herbs, lettuce, vermicelli, spring rolls and sauces.

Spring roll vermicelli at Monsoon Seattle.
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Eric and Sophie grew up in Saigon, a city Eric describes as “the Manhattan of Vietnam”. Their father was a wealthy businessman of Chinese descent (their mother was Vietnamese) and a hired driver regularly took them to the best restaurants in town where they developed their palates and nurtured their love of food.

In 1978, however, they were forced to flee the country as in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and spent 13 months in a refugee camp in Malaysia where daily meals consisted of canned sardines and chicken. Eric says living in the camp was tough, but helped him develop a tenacity and perspective that helped him in the restaurant industry.

Eric and Sophie’s family landed in Alberta, Canada in 1979 where Eric attended high school. During this time, Sophie lived in a few places on the East Coast before moving to Seattle in 1983 for her husband’s job.

A woman with glasses and short hair crosses her arms in a white chef's coat.

Sophie Banh is still very involved in the kitchens of Monsoon restaurants.
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Seattle, even in the 1990s, had casual Vietnamese restaurants serving banh mi, pho, and rice plates with grilled meats in the International District. What was missing was the kind of upscale Vietnamese cuisine that Sophie had enjoyed in Saigon, often Chinese-influenced meat and fish dishes served family-style with rice.

One day she called Eric on the phone and said, “Eric, let’s do a restaurant.”

Although neither had experience in the restaurant industry, they decided to give it a shot – at worst, they ate as they pleased for a year or two and then closed. They borrowed money from their family and took a leap of faith. Their dishes – such as steamed halibut with vermicelli noodles and black beans, spicy cumin lamb and Dungeness crab-stuffed spring rolls, combined Vietnamese fine dining with Northwest ingredients, creating something entirely new.

Within three weeks of opening the first monsoon location, there was a line of people waiting for tables outside the restaurant. Despite the popularity and nice old words Seattle Times food critic Nancy Leson, money was scarce for the first few years. There were only two employees, so Eric’s mother rolled spring rolls in the kitchen, and Sophie and Eric both worked until 2 or 3 a.m. every night.

During the early years of Monsoon, Eric fell in love with Northwest ingredients and would source heirloom tomatoes from a nearby farmers market for a beef stir-fry. Wild mushrooms such as chanterelles and morels have appeared on the restaurant menu. Sophie honed her skills in the kitchen, meticulously crafting fermented soy from scratch for her cumin lamb dish and obsessively tasting the food for quality control.

Things calmed down over the next few years. The restaurant became profitable, and Eric and Sophie even opened a second Monsoon location in downtown Bellevue in December 2008, right after the financial collapse. With less spending money, diners didn’t want to go out for the type of expensive seafood and meat dishes served by Monsoon. Business plummeted. Eric says it took two years to recover.

A busy dining room, with a Chinese lion dance weaving its way between the tables.

A lion dance in the Capitol Hill dining room of the Ba Bar.
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A woman and a man stand next to each other in front of a bar-restaurant.

Eric Banh and his wife Teresa Nguyen created Ba Bar in response to the 2008 recession.
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Ba Bar was Eric’s answer to the recession. He wanted to open a Vietnamese street food restaurant and bar, a place where people could get affordable, casual noodle dishes any time of the day. His wife, Teresa Nguyen, who worked at Boeing as a procurement finance analyst, joined the company as a partner. When the Ba Bar first opened, it was open until 2am on weekdays and 4am on weekends, and Eric and Teresa worked until closing time every night. Eventually, Ba Bar also became profitable and expanded to two more locations.

Some things have changed at Ba Bar and Monsoon over the years. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Ba Bar is no longer open after midnight. Wild mushrooms have been harder to find, so they are no longer on the menu. And with rising inflation, the cost of heirloom tomatoes is now too high to use for the beef and tomato dish (Eric took the dish off the menu for sacrificing flavor and using non-heirloom tomatoes).

The menus have also slowly changed, inspired by the trips Eric, Sophie and Teresa take each year to Vietnam. Despite the restaurants’ continued success, Eric emphasizes his refugee roots. He fondly recalls the Red Cross feeding his family in the refugee camp and raising money for Ukrainian and Afghan refugees over the past year, now that he is able to give back.

“It really touched our hearts because these people are in a very similar situation to when we landed in Edmonton, Alberta in 1979,” Eric says.

What hasn’t changed, and perhaps one of the reasons for the companies’ long-term success, is the emphasis on quality control. Sophie is still in Monsoon’s kitchen most days, and Eric is ubiquitous at the Ba Bar.

“I like being involved with my bosses,” says Sophie. “I love talking to them. I love being there.

“People think that once you have multiple restaurants, you don’t have to do anything,” says Eric. “It does not work.”

A bowl of broth, chunks of oxtail, thinly sliced ​​rare steak and green onions.

Steak and oxtail pho at Ba Bar.
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A bowl of thin wheat noodles topped with a whole roasted duck leg, some herbs and shiitake mushrooms.

Mi vit tiem, duck confit with wheat noodles and shiitake in broth, at Ba Bar.
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