Vinam is a Vietnamese restaurant at the bottom of St. Georges in the emerging Lower Lonsdale neighbourhood. The restaurant is found at the bottom of a high rise residential building that looks like an office tower. The restaurant takes up most of the bottom floor, and is wrapped around three different sides of the building. It’s an odd configuration that means that virtually every seat is a window seat with a view, but the view is certainly not the reason why the restaurant is so popular. It’s not even the food, which is delicious. The real reason is the owner and manager Lani Nguyen, who sets the tone for everything.
Vinam opened 10 years ago, with Lani’s brother as the owner. She took it over two years ago when her kids were grown up and she was looking for things to do. You can find her at Vinam 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. She commutes from Burnaby after the morning rush hour and doesn’t leave until late at night, so she avoids all the bridge traffic. Given the joy she seems to emit from her job, it’s surprising she doesn’t live there full time. If really anyone loves her job, it’s Lani.
The joy she takes in her role as manager and maitre’d runs down the food chain, from the servers to the chefs. It’s a happy crew. When Lani first started, there was a limited menu. If you went there now, you wouldn’t recognize the variety of food available or the size of the portions. Lani explains that she doesn’t want anyone to go hungry; a small bowl of pho is more than one person can eat. Pho (beef or chicken soup) is the signature dish at any Vietnamese restaurant. At Vinam, they’ll even prepare a seafood version of pho, which Lani admits is made with the same chicken stock but comes crammed with seafood.
What’s new on the new menu? Lani says customers are asking for more vegetables these days. Vermicelli rich noodles, called “bun” in Vietnamese, are popular. In the winter, sweet and sour soup is hot. Vinam offers 8 different types of spring and salad rolls; try the mango basil. Their Vietnamese version of curry is very popular, served mild, although if you ask nicely they will put some flame thrower in it.
It’s the odd shape of the building that adds to the charm. You literally cannot see one end of the building from the other. The front door is far away from the back, and near the back door is an isolated group table for large parties. There is an exit door in that room, and anyone who felt like dodging out the door without paying would have no problem is so doing. Lani takes pride in the fact that no customer has ever left either the front or back door without paying, even though a server might not be able to see. She also takes pride in that most customers are repeat customers who come back time and time again and tell their friends.
There is no delivery in place yet, but Jani says she may join “Just Eat,” a new delivery service coming to the North Shore. Given how busy the restaurant has become, she recommends reservations, especially for large groups. Head chef Hong Nguyen now prepares almost 100 items on the menu (exact count is 95, for those counting) and – if like your meals spicy – any can be made to order. Call ahead or simply drop by and discover for yourself why this odd-shaped place has become a destination for lovers of Asian food. Phone 604-985-5477. Open 7 days a week 11 am to 9.30 pm at 175 ast 3rd Street. Free street parking and in a lot behind the building.
Photo: Owner Lani Ngyuyen is the reason why customers keep returning to this popular Vietnamese restaurant.