The fragrant pho and crispy chicken wings at Ba Bar and the catfish claypot and crackly imperial rolls at Monsoon are some of the best-known Vietnamese dishes in the city. Monsoon is the obvious choice for those who looking to eat Vietnamese food but who want somewhere with more of a fine dining vibe than their neighborhood pho joint, and Ba Bar is the spot for those who want to have Vietnamese noodles made with grass-fed beef and local duck or chicken.
But siblings Eric and Sophie Banh, who opened Monsoon Seattle together in 1999, never planned to own five restaurants. Having moved to Canada as “boat people” fleeing from the Vietnam war after spending months in a Malaysian refugee camp, Eric and Sophie opened Monsoon on a whim with money borrowed from family, driven by a love for food. The restaurant became the city’s first Vietnamese fine dining restaurant, changing the scene forever by bringing Chinese-influenced Vietnamese fine dining dishes to Seattle.
Eric and Sophie grew up in Saigon, a city Eric describes as “the Manhattan of Vietnam.” Their father was a wealthy businessman of Chinese descent (their mother was Vietnamese), and a hired driver would regularly take them to the city’s best restaurants where they developed their palates and nurtured a love of food.
In 1978, though, they were forced to flee the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and spent 13 months in a refugee camp in Malaysia where daily meals consisted of sardines and canned chicken. Eric says living in the camp was hard, but helped him build a toughness and perspective that’s helped him in the restaurant industry.
Eric and Sophie’s family landed in Alberta, Canada, in 1979, where Eric went to high school. Meanwhile, Sophie lived in a couple of places on the East Coast before she moved to Seattle in 1983 for her husband’s work.
Seattle, even in the 1990s, had casual Vietnamese restaurants serving banh mi, pho, and rice plates with grilled meats in the International District. What was missing was the type of high-end Vietnamese food Sophie had enjoyed in Saigon, often Chinese-influenced dishes of meat and fish served family-style with rice.
One day she called Eric on the phone and said, “Eric, let’s do a restaurant.”
Though neither had experience in the restaurant industry, they decided to give it a go — worst comes to worst, they would eat how they liked for a year or two then close it down. They borrowed money from family and took a leap of faith. Their dishes — like steamed halibut with vermicelli noodles and black beans, spicy cumin lamb, and spring rolls stuffed with Dungeness crab, combined Vietnamese fine dining with the ingredients of the Northwest, creating something entirely new.
Within three weeks of opening the Monsoon’s first location, there was a line of people waiting for tables outside the restaurant. Despite the popularity, and kind words from former Seattle Times food critic Nancy Leson, money was tight for the first few years. There were only two employees, so Eric’s mother rolled imperial rolls in the kitchen, and Sophie and Eric both worked until 2 or 3 a.m. every night.
During Monsoon’s early years, Eric fell in love with the ingredients of the Northwest and would get heirloom tomatoes from a nearby farmers market for a beef stirfry. Wild mushrooms like chanterelles and morels popped up on the restaurant’s menu. Sophie honed her skills in the kitchen, meticulously making fermented soybeans from scratch for her cumin lamb dish and obsessively tasting the food for quality control.
Things settled down over the next several years. The restaurant became profitable, and Eric and Sophie even opened a second location of Monsoon in downtown Bellevue in December 2008, just after the financial collapse. With less spending money, diners didn’t want to go out for the type of expensive seafood and meat dishes Monsoon served. Business plummeted. Eric says it took two years to recover.
Ba Bar was Eric’s response to the recession. He wanted to open a Vietnamese street food restaurant and bar, somewhere people could get affordable, casual, noodle dishes any time of the day. His wife, Teresa Nguyen, who was working at Boeing as a procurement finance analyst, joined as his partner in the venture. When Ba Bar opened, it was open until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends, and Eric and Teresa worked until close every night. Eventually, Ba Bar became profitable too and expanded to two more locations.
Some things have changed at Ba Bar and Monsoon over the years. Since the pandemic started, Ba Bar hasn’t been open past midnight. Wild mushrooms have been harder to source, so those are no longer on the menu. And with rising inflation, the cost of heirloom tomatoes is now too high to use for the beef and tomato dish (Eric took the dish off the menu over sacrificing flavor and using non-heirloom tomatoes).
The menus have slowly changed, too, inspired by trips Eric, Sophie, and Teresa take to Vietnam every year. Despite the restaurants’ continued success, Eric emphasizes his roots as a refugee. He fondly recalls Red Cross feeding his family in the refugee camp, and he raised money for Ukrainian and Afghani refugees over the last year now that he’s in a position to give back. “It really touched our hearts because these folks are in a very similar situation as we were in when we landed in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1979,” Eric says.
What hasn’t changed, and perhaps a reason for the businesses’ long-term success, is a focus on quality control. Sophie is still in the kitchen at Monsoon most days, and Eric is omnipresent at Ba Bar. “I love being involved with my chefs,” Sophie says. “I love talking to them. I love being there.”
“People think that once you have multiple restaurants, it’s hands-off,” Eric says. “That doesn’t work.”