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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chan Banh's Wok n’ Roll story 

The Clarion Content is delighted to welcome on board a new regular contributor, Ned Phillips. Ned is recently returned from Europe where among his many endeavours he made fabulous short films and wrote well received travel articles. He is a veteran of the Durham scene, with a returning expatriate's take on our dear city.

Check out his first dispatch below.

photo credit: Ned Phillips............Bahn's, #750 Ninth Street, Durham.

Wok n’ Roll
by Ned Phillips

In Banh’s Cuisine on a warm Saturday afternoon chef/owner Chan Banh sits across from me, talking about the glory days of Ninth Street. These were the early to mid 90’s, right around the time Nirvana was peaking and Snoop Dogg was just starting to matter.

Wellspring Grocery was thriving across the street, the Ninth Street Bakery delivered quality breads while the Ninth Street Bar and Grill was the only place you could get a beer. McDonald’s Drugstore churned out fresh, handcrafted milkshakes and Dogstar Tattoo was the preferred hangout for musicians, skater kids and underage cigarette smokers. Poindexter Records was one of my favorites, carrying an obscure selection of tapes and CD for any taste. Being ten years old, North American Video was THE most exciting place to me, where on Friday nights I’d browse the aisles of videocassettes admiring at the titles and box covers, deciding which world to enter, Mother permitting.

Aside from the ability to still attract fringe characters, Ninth Street has undergone tremendous transformation in the past two decades. Bars run rampant, the Wellspring complex is all but abandoned and even soul sucking, indie-crushing Subway has moved into the old Ninth Street Active Feet. Home cinema has gone from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray and online databases.

Through the years, Chan has seen people and businesses come and go. Banh’s Cuisine has been on Ninth Street since the late ‘80s and he tells me of a time when Grant Hill would sit in my very seat, everyday at 3pm, eating spicy chicken wings. That is until his routine was discovered and he could no longer dine in peace. Mentioning the great #33 stirs my inner Dukie and an elevated conversation about the current state of ACC hoops ensues. During the autumn and winter months, NFL football is the topic of discussion.

In my early Banh’s days I was in a loving, committed relationship with Kung Pao chicken---diced chicken, watercress and green peppers, with just enough kick to keep you from shoveling it down too fast, was all I ever wanted. After a few years I strayed, moving in with General Tso---his spicy sweet, brown sauce with a hint of ginger gave unprecedented life to sautéed broccoli and carrots. The zing of ginger planted a seed I could not ignore, and now, when no one is looking, I flirt with ginger chicken and vegetables.

Unless it is Saturday. Saturdays and Wednesdays are typically the busiest days at Banh’s, when in addition to his usual cuisine Chan dishes up more typically Vietnamese fare. Pho soups and traditional vegetarian subs served on French baguettes are among the delicacies. During these specialty days the dining room is a bustling, jovial place and the take-out traffic is fast and furious.

In addition to his wok mastery, Chan serves as a fundamental cog in the Durham music scene. He’s made beats for local hip-hop acts and maintains a Godfather like status among the areas best musicians and producers. I’ve heard him, in the dining area, laptop in hand still wearing his chef apron talking with customers about Abelton audio engineering and the effect of renaissance equalizers. In his pockets are memory sticks filled with the latest Pro Tools plug-ins for those he’s mentoring. His passion and knowledge for music and production has rendered him a go-to guy for much of the area’s top talent.

Upon first acquaintance, Chan’s a seemingly shy guy. Yet time reveals him to be an incredibly warm and fascinating jack-of-all-trades. During a visit, you’re more likely to encounter one of his sisters, who double as cashiers and servers in the dining area. Like the great Grant Hill, Chan enjoys a certain anonymity, preferring the back of the kitchen to the front of the house.

Chan Banh’s eatery on Ninth Street is a veritable link to the past and bygone times when food and service were personal. Tradition and simplicity, in the best of ways, meant something. No frills, bells or whistles. No fancy tableware, just great food cooked fresh by wonderful people. I recently overheard an exchange between Chan and a customer regarding a new piece of recording software that had just been released- when asked if it was hard to learn, Chan Banh smiled, shook his head and said “Nah man, I’ll show you.”

Banh’s is a solid rock in Durham's gastronomic geology, and Chan truly one most fascinating quilt squares in the fabric of the Bull City, a community I am proud to be a part of again.

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