For a long time, there were few quality non-European food options in Brno. A surprising state of affairs given the sizable Vietnamese population, in particular.
Sure, a few of the ‘Chinese’ fast-food noodle joints featured beef noodle soup on the menu – pho by any other name. But to get one’s fix of the truly good stuff, and for a more varied menu including foodie favorites such as Bun bo Nam Bo and Bun cha, a trolley-bus trip to Olomoucká was unavoidable.
There, off to the side of the Vinamo market, were a few small kitchens serving up real Vietnamese cuisine. Originally catering mostly to the Vietnamese workers across the way, the market has gained increasing popularity throughout Brno. Nowadays you’ll find Vietnamese, Czechs, expats and even tourists shoulder-to-shoulder chowing down on the excellent food.
But given this popularity – a testament to the widespread familiarity with the cuisine – why had no enterprising soul decided to set up such an establishment more centrally?
Filling this void, much to my delight (and based on my recent visits that of many Brňáci), is the recently opened Gỗ on Běhounská street. The name is Vietnamese for wood – a motif which dominates the décor. Designed by Martin Hrdina (of Cafés Atlas, Café Pilát, Bistro Franz and Morgal fame), the interior is simple and clean but stunning, with clear references to the name in the many pictures of tree cross-cuts.
The restaurant is divided in two, with the back offering a typical dining setting. Also a nod to its tagline of “Vietnamese street food”, the front is dominated by an open kitchen, creating a more laid-back atmosphere and allowing guests a peek behind the scenes. So far, so good.
Thus it was with great anticipation that my partner and I made our first visit. Looking to make quality comparisons, we both stuck with go-to favorites. She ordered the Bun bo Nam Bo, while I chose the Bahn mi Xa Xiu.
For the uninitiated, the former is a beef noodle salad made with vermicelli noodles topped with wok-fried marinated beef, fresh veggies, vibrant Asian herbs, and crunchy peanuts and fried shallots, served with seasoned fish sauce. The bahn mi is a ubiquitous street food in Vietnam and enduring sign of French influence – a baguette stuffed with such various fillings as Vietnamese-style pates and charcuterie, egg, or grilled meats. What they all have in common is the bread, which must be nice and crusty on the outside but soft and pillowy inside, a rich smattering of mayo, Sriracha and Hoisin sauces, and herbs and pickled veg.
And so we tucked into our meals, expectations high. Sadly, high expectations are rarely a recipe for satisfaction. For various reasons, our meals did not measure up. Though visually stunning, the bun bo lacked the expected vibrancy. Too much iceberg, not enough herbs, and a surprisingly flat fish sauce. My bahn mi also missed the mark, due to a stale baguette and pate overdose – each bite a struggle and a mess.
The service, too, left much to be desired. Although disappointed, we decided to chalk the experience up to trial-period jitters. So when a visiting friend suggested we go there for diner we were happy to give it a second chance. And I’m sure glad we did.
The second visit showed vast improvements across the board. The staff provided quick and efficient service without being overly attentive. And, most importantly, the food was on point.
To start we shared nem ran tom and nem cuon tom (spring and summer rolls with pork and shrimp). The spring rolls were a delectable deep-fried treat accompanied by the staple fish sauce to cut through the grease and fat, while the summer rolls were vibrant and fresh with a tart pineapple sauce. For our mains, the misses once again went for the bun bo nam bo. And this time it did not disappoint. Yours truly opted for the bun cha. A monster of a meal with cold vermicelli noodles piled high next to perfectly tender and unctuous grilled pork, all accompanied by the customary herbs, veggies and fish sauce.
I have since been back twice more – each time for a quick lunch. Eager to set right my first experience, I again had the bahn mi. Taking it back to its humble origins, I ordered mine to go. In the time it took to walk to Hlavní nádraží, I had devoured it. It was perfect. The baguette had a crispy but yielding crust, and all the elements were balanced and present in each bite – delightfully fatty pork belly kicked up a notch with the silky pate and sweet and spicy sauces and cut with the freshness of the pickled veg and fresh herbs. And at the price of a stravenka, this is my new go-to quick lunch.
While Gỗ seems to have faced some challenges in the early days of its trial operation, the restaurant has clearly come through the better for the experience. For anyone who had a similar first impression, I urge you to give it another chance. For those who haven’t been yet, what are you waiting for? Gỗ!