For Tuan Bui and Matt Le-Khac, the bahn mi is an art form. Though Tuan is a business man and Matt is a former scientist, the unlikely pair bring their mutual passion for Vietnamese home cooking to life in their restaurant, An Choi, every single day.
Since opening in 2009, An Choi has blossomed into a culinary staple of the Lower East Side. Tuan and Matt’s recipe for success is built from a combination of unmistakeable good vibes, and a commitment to the flavors native to the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
We recently caught up with the pair and got the lowdown on Vietnamese cuisine, the meaning of ‘an choi,’ and the enduring appeal of mom’s cooking.
Hey boys. Can you tell us a bit about the history of An Choi?
An Choi opened in the LES in 2009. Our inspiration was street food strait from the alleyways of Ho Chi Minh City-also known as Saigon-and Hanoi. Seven years later we’re a downtown New York fixture.
Did you two enter into this venture with a culinary background?
I was more of an entrepreneur. I always wanted to run my own business, but being an ambassador of vietnamese food, of cuisine…that’s my background now.
I was actually a scientist before I became a chef. That stemmed from a promise I made to my dad. He made all his sons promise to get a PHD in something. So i went to columbia and got my PhD. That gave me a reason to be in New York.
How did the chef-to-scientist transition come about for you?
I always wanted to do my mom’s recipes, so I used to have dinner parties at my loft in Dumbo. Tuan came to a bunch of them and couldn’t stop thinking about the food, so he generously offered for me to do a pop-up one night here in the restaurant. My mom always wanted her food in a restaurant. That first night, when she came in and saw all her food and recipes on the table-it was a beautiful thing. She passed away a month after that. Even if your mom lives to be a hundred, not every son or daughter is able to give her an opportunity to materialize her dreams. Now I’ve been the head chef up here for the past three years, and it’s amazing to have a vehicle and a platform to tell a story of Vietnamese food. The bahn mi is just one of those stories.
Would you say that you bring that scientific eye to your cooking?
I get that question a lot. Food is more like jazz. You get the chords and keys right, and if you’re a good jazz musician you can figure the rest out. If you’re a good chef you can figure out the missing pieces.
Why did you choose to open your spot in the LES?
The LES has a rich history with immigrants. There’s that diversity here, you have all walks of life. You have young professionals and artists but you still have the old timers: the Chinese residents and a little bit of the Jewish community.
But now An Choi seems to be such an institution in the neighborhood. How did that come about, would you say?
Being a neighborhood spot, we wanted to have a sense of camaraderie and comfort. The regulars who come here time and time again want a noodle soup or a pho that has the senses and smells they grew up eating in their families. It’s just a feel good type of food.
What does An Choi mean, exactly?
‘An choi’ is when Vietnamese people go out to drink. ‘An choi’ is like ‘Hey, lets have a little nibble of something as we drink our beers.’ When you’re drinking something you want to be eating something.
There’s also a literal translation of ‘an choi.’ An means ‘to eat’ and ‘choi’ means to play.
Eat and play.
There’s also a third meaning. It’s tricky to translate but if you call someone ‘an choi’ you’re saying they like to party, they enjoy life. Sort of a bon vivant. All the translations are a good fit for us.
Do you remember your first bahn mi or pho?
The first memories of something are usually olfactory. For me, or for any Vietnamese kid growing up, you would wake up and smell the onions that go in pho and know your mom was making a good bowl of pho. It’s not like you remember that first bowl of pho, you just remember those smells.
What makes a good bahn mi?
What makes a good bahn mi makes a good bite of food in itself. You have to activate all five areas of the tongue. You need to activate sweetness, savoriness, bitterness, a little bit of citrus, and spiciness. I think that progression separates Vietnamese cuisine from other cuisines, because European cuisines don’t have that final spicy element. You have to activate that. That’s the kick.