Hidden Gem: Vancouver’s Ongba Vietnamese Eatery is bound to delight (pho sure)

You can spot the restaurant at 976 Denman Street.

Hai Nguyen never had a full apple growing up—it was always split between her family members, so everyone got a slice each. “It’s a refugee story,” she says of her move from Vietnam to Canada 39 years ago. According to Nguyen, after the war in Vietnam, communists started persecuting people of the ruling class (as in, those who owned land and were educated). After a few unsuccessful attempts, Nguyen’s family was finally able to flee the country with many others, known as the Vietnamese boat people

“We sent money back religiously, every month,” she recalls. “My siblings and I, up until we were 14, I don’t think we ever had any new clothing. I think I had my first burger when I was 12.”

It’s not surprising then that Nguyen ventured into a business that focuses on the things that have remained the most important binding ingredients in her life: family and food.

Ôngbà restaurant: the founder’s story

Ôngbà Vietnamese Eatery is within downtown Vancouver’s very busy Denman strip. Besides the loud helix of the next-door barber shop, it would be easy to miss this gem if it wasn’t for the nightly line of customers waiting upwards of 30 minutes to get a seat inside.  

“We had to think about how to address the needs of our stakeholders, our customers,” says director Nguyen. “What do they like? What kind of items are they buying? And we discovered that, even though we have customers that may eat multiple times a day, they were willing to pay a little more for a premium product. And so we were more selective about our ingredients and the freshness of things.”

Although the majority of her childhood was spent in Canada, Nguyen never forgot her Vietnamese culture. She couldn’t if she wanted to: seeing her classmates plug their noses at the sight of fish sauce jogged her memory.

The business itself is an homage to Nguyen’s parents, the sacrifices they made for a better life in Canada and their unwavering love for family. The name, which means “grandpa” (ông) and “grandma” (bà) in Vietnamese, actually refers to Nguyen’s parents (her children’s grandparents). It doesn’t hurt that her parents themselves are great cooks—so good in fact that Nguyen finds it impossible to recreate “ông’s eggs” or “ông’s fish sauce” for her kids. Nguyen’s dad used to make his own fish sauce in Vietnam, but here in Vancouver he simply adds things to the store-bought kind to make his own special concoction. Ôngbà is already working on its own line of sauces which will include ong’s fish sauce (and bà’s vegan version, too).  

Ôngbà restaurant: the bottom line

The restaurant’s décor draws from Nguyen’s immigrant experience. Ôngbà’s 800 square foot space has a bicycle mounted on one wall to represent the bike her mother rode on to break Nguyen’s father out of prison after the communists came. The bike has a pair of skates hanging from it to remember the family’s successful escape from Vietnam and their first winter in Canada in 1983. 

Just like the story of its founders, the story behind the restaurant is one of determination. Even after incorporating Café Phin and Pho as Ôngbà in 2016, Nguyen and her family continued to operate under that name because that’s what customers were familiar with. But one thing they did start to change right away was the menu.  

The young staff of nine went through much trial and error to land on their current menu, which bring fusion twists to traditional childhood favourites. The banh mí options, beef rib pho and flan are some popular examples, although the restaurant also has vegan and gluten-free options—in fact, its vegan pho (the recipe for which came from bà herself) sells out every night. And if there’s ever any excess food, the Ôngbà tradition is to deliver it fresh to the Downtown Eastside. 

Since its incorporation, the business has seen its monthly revenue double. Nguyen credits this to the way her team is constantly experimenting with dishes: “If we ever got complacent, I think that would be a problem. But we’re seeing what customers are demanding and what they seem to respond to.”