In early August, Braden and Yasmin Wages took their first vacation since opening their restaurant, Malai, to spend five days in Hanoi, Vietnam, immersing themselves in the local food and culture.
"We really just wanted to refresh and expand our menu," said Braden. "We also wanted to re-center ourselves on pho. It's something we're passionate about we wanted to get back to traditional flavors."
The Wages didn't have a set itinerary other than to walk the streets of Hanoi and try various foods from street vendors. Braden explained that there aren't really a lot traditional restaurants in the city.
"There doesn't seem to be a lot of life inside buildings," Wages said. "Shops and restaurants pour out onto the street."
As they ate, they tried to break down the dishes, flavors and specific ingredients. They also took two cooking classes and spent a lot of time in the local markets trying different produce. As a result of the trip, they've made significant changes to their pho.
"It's better now," Braden said. "We had to adjust the timing. We had to learn how not to hold it too hot."
He explained that traditionally pho is cooked overnight, served in the morning, then within two hours is usually gone. Since it's not practical for Malai to be open just two hours a day, the challenge is to have pho ready to serve all day. If it's held too hot for too long, the flavors and base begin to break down.
Based on what they had in Vietnam, they also added fresh noodles and a bread stick (similar to fried dough) to each bowl.
"We just watched what everyone else was doing," said Braden, "and they're all serving this bread with their pho."
They've also added five new dishes to their menu, which mostly run as daily specials, including a banana blossom salad; bun cha, which is a grilled minced pork dish; and a fried egg bahn mi.
Braden said he's inclined to stand on top of the building and scream to everyone that their pho is even better now and they have some amazing new dishes. But at this point, he really shouldn't have to twist our arm at all.
They shared with us some of their amazing photos of their trip...
Braden explained that in the evenings, the streets literally shut down to traffic and fill up with tables. There's never really a menu. Diners simply find a spot and soon someone brings them beer and food.
Braden and Yasmin took several trips through the markets of Hanoi, once with a guide from a cooking class who helped translate.
A boat vendor wearing what appears to be silver shoes.
With no option for deep-fried chicken nuggets made from random parts, the Wages were forced to eat fresh chicken cooked over a small charcoal grill.
This is a simple dish of corn with dried shrimp and spices -- elotes Vietnam style.
When Yasmin and Braden arrived at this restaurant, the men who are at the table in the back insisted they take their table, which was closer to the curb and considered to better spot.
It's not all from-scratch street food in Hanoi. Here's a poster for a rice-cake burger.
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