Number One Gas Street is almost a famous address in Northampton. The huge roundabout at the bottom of Horse Market where the A508 gets entangled with the A4500 – it’s right there.
Traffic pours in from all points of the compass, swirls around, misses its turn and gets piped onward to wherever the one way system wants it to go.
The building has been all sorts of things: pub, chicken shop, nightclub, even a strip club but for the past six years it has been quietly emerging as one of the town’s great word of mouth dining attractions – Oren Pho.
Serving southern Vietnamese cuisine, the pandemic hit Oren Pho hard when their staff returned to Vietnam during lockdown. A Gold Award for World Cuisine from the The Weetabix Food and Drink Awards was the last thing they expected.
“We bought this place six years and have been trading five years. We get so many people telling us they worked here once upon a time, telling us what it was like. It was actually a nightclub the first time we looked at it. It was my dad who persuaded us this was a great place. It’s so big. It looked sound but when we took the false walls down there was more to do than we thought,” says Tran, wife of head chef Minh who prepares the food and mother of daughter Oren who the restaurant is named after. The Vietnamese tradition is that women do not change their name when they marry so it is Tran Ta, Minh To and Oren Pho.
Minh is from North Vietnam and can speak Cantonese while Tran is from South Vietnam, their families came to England during the Vietnamese boat people crisis in the 1970s when the couple were just three and four.
Being able to speak Cantonese has been an unexpected benefit when Chinese students come in the restaurant.
“Sometimes they aren’t sure what something on the menu is because their English isn’t good enough and they are always a bit taken aback if I can explain it to them in Cantonese. My accent isn’t that great! I drop a few words in and pretty soon I am waffling on,” says Minh.
“Originally we were in London and I was working in property management and we were fed up with the grind of London. At first we were thinking of opening a place just doing Vietnamese baguettes. My family lives in Brackley anyway. We were in Rothwell and we were actually looking for a house and my dad said: ‘I have found you something better! Come have a look,'” laughs Tran, recalling how they first discovered 1 Gas Street.
“We first thought, this is huge, how are we going to do this? We had never done a restaurant, we had done a takeaway so it was a big learning curve,” Minh adds.
“We were just getting there, getting busy, our staffing was good and everything was falling into place. We had plans for upstairs and then lockdown came. At first it was better than we expected. We created the garden area and we were doing takeaway but during the second and third lockdown our staff, a lot of who are Vietnamese got scared and went home. It was difficult for them, they didn’t have their families here so we lost our team,” says Tran.
Now they are preparing to reopen, offering food inspired by the sweeter tastes of South Vietnam but also subtly influenced by their lives in England.
“Our food is authentic Vietnamese, it is the food we have grown up with but the ingredients our parents have been feeding us have been bought in England, so our take on it is slightly different,” says Tran.
“Vietnamese food is refreshing. It’s lighter, it is still aromatic like oriental food but there is less deep fried food, more vegetable salad, fresh herbs for flavouring, our meat is grilled. We are also quite spicy. Raw chillies rather than just cooked in.”
“I think there are some Vietnamese herbs that we cannot handle because we have grown up in England. There is a leaf that tastes like fermented fish that is very popular in Vietnam. It is definitely an acquired taste. For us it is a bit too strong,” says Minh.
The couple are also used to cooking where it is easier to pick out the flavour of individual spices whereas in Vietnam, with a greater range available, there is more often a medley of spicy flavours in dishes.
“I like to think it’s a cleaner taste,” says Tran.
As time has gone on their continued work upgrading the building has paid dividends. In the 2018/19 round of the food awards they were a runner up in the World Cuisine category but the building was still a work in progress. This year’s Gold shows the work they have put in has been worth it and more plans are on the way.
They aim to have the upstairs transformed and are also looking at innovating with some smaller tapas style dishes. All in all that decision to get a restaurant in Northampton instead of a house looks like it might be finally paying off.
“At first our friends in London were like ‘what are you doing there?’ but we love Northampton. You can do everything here,” says Tran.