Lola Phuong doesn’t want photos taken of her. I am old already – ugly, she said jokingly in Filipino.
Her namesake restaurant, Phuong, has seen two Los Banos locations since she arrived in 1975 from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) at the height of Vietnam War with her Filipino husband: the first beside Agrix moviehouse for 18 years, and in 2008, about fifty steps away to a hole in a wall at F.O. Santos. But a lot remains the same: the signage, the same fare of thirty-plus dishes she has been serving for many years, dishes taught by her aunt and grandmother back in Vietnam, now carefully prepared by herself or with the help of a close relative.
Nước mắm, a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine, is a sweet-spicy-sour dip with fish sauce (very similar to our patis) as the base, mixed with sugar and lime juice, and finely chopped garlic and red chillies. Lola does hers well, with fine strands of radish and carrot, that I once ordered a bottle from her many years ago, at my senior year in UPLB. (It came in a quaint reused plastic jug of soy sauce. Just as any grandmother would do! I thought back then.) Having dined at Phuong Restaurant for years, I can say that nước mắm is the most thrilling part, since the balance of flavors makes every dish it goes with sublime. Her Vietnamese rolls – chả giò (deep-fried spring rolls) and gỏi cuốn (shrimp and vermicelli wrapped in fresh rice wrappers) – are crowd favorites: both tightly wrapped in rice paper that each roll acts like some sort of a dipper for the nước mắm, tucking it all in until the last bite. You see chả giò getting a combo meal treatment with her bún chả giò, with the fried rolls topping a bowl of barbecued pork, vermicelli, sticks of carrots and cucumber, and herbs. It is a great showcase of textures, at once silky and crispy and chewy, with a very light dressing of – you guessed it! – nước mắm.
But there are so much more to Vietnamese cuisine than rolls: try bánh cuốn, chewy layers of steamed rice rolls, pork and mushrooms, a dish that lola never trusted anyone to do – it’s too fussy for others, she said, so she makes it all by herself, from scratch. Or bánh xèo, a pork-and-shrimp-studded crepe, with fresh herbs and bean sprouts. You spoon a little bit of each in a mustard leaf, wrap it all and dip in nuoc mam: it’s vibrant, with the peppery kick of mustard. Cơm chiên với gà, chicken fried rice, is the only rice dish in the menu, but it is simply delicious: it’s fried rice with slightly toasted shreds of chicken and slightly seasoned with fish sauce. While it looks just like any other home-cooked fried rice, the chicken, slightly burnt grains tossed in (the heavenly tutong of Filipino sinangag) that makes it irresistibly chewy and crispy. For dessert there is bánh da lợn, translated as pig’s skin cake, is a bit similar to our kutsinta: it’s a mildly sweet rice cake that comes in two tones: mung bean (yellow) and fragrant pandan (green).
There are more popular dishes I’ve yet to try: her phở, rice noodles that’s steeped in either beef (phở bò) or chicken (phở gà) broth, and bánh mì, with the airy French baguettes that she admits was challenging to do that she had to rely on another source. The noodles and the fish sauce she use are shipped all the way from Ho Chi Minh City, some of which are on display on a glass shelf outside, together with other merchandise sold only in Vietnam, such as trà atiso (artichoke tea), jackfruit chips, instant phở and phin filters, which used to go together with packs of Vietnamese cà phê, which didn’t sell well in the past.
Central to the restaurant’s charm is Phuong herself. While my first few dine-ins were initially limited to finger-pointing at the laminated menu, asking her a few questions reveals her chatty personality – and her fluency in Filipino (albeit heavily inflected with her native Vietnamese). Dining in her restaurant is a candid invitation to her living room, which doubles as the dining space: diners can see the TV, usually open for noontime shows; the big wooden armoire; the desk with the mirror; and the table where she would tirelessly do her kitchen prep, such as pinching basil leaves from the stems, or meticulously slicing vegetables for her rolls. (She resells basil and other herbs at an online market.) What separates her tiny kitchen from the rest is a drawn curtain, but the smells and the sounds are a treat.
Although seating is currently limited to Covid-19 to about two to four customers, space is one thing she’s always wanted: a space of her own, instead of keeping up with the monthly rent. (It’s one of the thing she’d buy if she wins the lotto; fortunately, lotteries aren’t her thing. I’d rather cook, she said, even if it’s not giving me much money.) She’s managed to work with Covid-19 – although orders in the first weeks, it’s slowly trickling back to pre-pandemic levels. It also helped that she’s now accepting advanced orders for pick-up and deliveries via local delivery couriers – Lola Phuong proudly claims that she receives orders to nearby Calamba and as far as Sta. Cruz, despite the delivery charges. Her Facebook page is surprisingly responsive, having been managed and constantly updated by one of her loyal customers.
Just this September, the restaurant launched its Wednesday specials, featuring dishes with familiar ingredients but unheard-of combinations, a testament to similarities of both Filipino and Vietnamese cuisine, at least in ingredients, if not in flavors. Bánh tét, pork and mungbean paste stuffed in savoury glutinous rice, then rolled and steamed in banana leaves, reminds me of the Kapampangan tamales. Bún măng vịt is duck soup with bamboo shoots, light and restorative. Chè trôi nước, sweet sticky rice balls with mungbean filling, is a lot like our guinataang bilu-bilo, only this one is soaked in light ginger-coconut syrup, similar to a personal favorite, the gulab jamun of Indian cuisine. Last week’s special is perhaps the prime example of the shared history between Vietnamese and Filipinos: the Vietnamese cháo long, pork organ congee topped with coriander and basil. It is not to be confused with the iconic chao long of Palawan that’s similar to beef phở, and is ubiquitous in eateries of Puerto Princesa and nearby towns. Originally made by Vietnamese refugees who fled during the fall of Saigon, cháo long (a misnomer, as it really is phở) is adapted to local ingredients, with the addition of annatto that gives off an appetizing orange hue, and to the Filipino palate, making it a tad sweeter than the original phở.
You can see where Phuong’s loyalties are in terms of cooking: hers is uncompromising Vietnamese fare, perhaps closer to the real deal, if not for a couple of elusive Vietnamese herbs missing in her culinary arsenal. Has she ever considered going back to where she grew up, in Ho Chi Minh City? No plans. “Takot ako sa byahe!” she said, shaking her head, her fear of travel palpable.
Phuong Restaurant, F.O. Santos St., Los Banos, Laguna. Open Mon-Sun. Facebook page: phuongvietelbi. Lunch or dinner for two. Php 150-250. Recommended (with numbers from the menu): chả giò (#5), gỏi cuốn (#10), bún chả giò (#3), bánh xèo (#26), cơm chiên với gà (#12).