Folks, I’m sorry to do this to you but you’re eating Vietnamese food all wrong. You know Bahn Mi, Banh Cuon, Pho, and all those other delights you devour with pleasure anytime after midday? Well, traditionally speaking, you see, these are actually breakfast dishes. And those weird curries made with poultry last seen taking flight when dinosaurs roamed the earth (which taste the same no matter what colour the sauce happens to be that day)? Don’t get me started on them. They’re not even all that Vietnamese.
Don’t panic, I’m not trying to convert you to an 8AM, pre-commute, bowl of meat broth every morning. But I do need to blow some air through the cobwebbed corridors of our breakfasting choices, because the morning offerings at Maison Han go against what we’d normally see inside our breakfast bowls, and that’s a good thing – trust me.
“Stop hating and get inside, because Maison Han is the embodiment of owner, Duc Nguyen’s, passions in life and they’re really rather lovely.”
Located on the corner of Neukölln’s Plügerstraße and Pannierstraße, it’s safe to say Maison Han looks a bit like a much-lambasted hipster side project from the outside. The benches are super slouchy, the lighting is all exposed bulbs threaded on low hanging cords and the table and chairs look like something you sat on in school. Stop hating and get inside though, because Maison Han is the embodiment of owner, Duc Nguyen’s passions in life and they’re really rather lovely.
Duc was born in Berlin, moving with his family to Kreuzberg when young. After time spent in Münster and Oldenburg, opening his Royals and Rice restaurants, he returned to his home district for the next chapter of his journey – a venue from where he could concentrate on his Han Coffee Roasters business. The thing is, opening a coffee (read: hipster) venue in the ever-more gentrified Kreuzberg is a precariously delicate undertaking these days, especially in light of the recent attacks on neighbouring Reichenberger Straße’s Vertikal Restaurant, where protesters smashed windows and scrawled slogans such as “Auslander Bonzen Raus! (sic)” on the shutters.
Waving a white flag to the local battlefield, Duc made sure to incorporate the Berlin bear into his Maison Han logo and to put a sign saying Real Berliner in its windows. It’s sad that he and his team had to do this – especially as many other new business owners in the area won’t be able to make the same claim – but as a plea to prevent bricks being chucked through his windows at midnight, Duc didn’t have all that much choice, and so far it seems to be working.
“What we inherently believe to be a post-noon meal, actually makes for a brilliantly fresh and fervent wake up call.”
So why Vietnamese coffee and breakfast? Well, the idea for Han Coffee Roasters took root after Duc became increasingly frustrated with having to serve Italian coffee in his restaurants when he knew Vietnamese blends would be make much more sense. On a quest to set up a direct import business, Duc travelled to Vietnam to establish connections with coffee producers. Once there, he and his friends realised two important things. Firstly: there were children working in many of the producers’ fields – so they walked away from a lot of deals. Secondly: Vietnamese breakfasts are awesome – so they decided to incorporate them into their Berlin project.
The resulting menu at Maison Han is an authentic and varied insight into Vietnam’s vibrant breakfasting culture, and what we inherently believe to be a post-noon meal actually makes for a brilliantly fresh and fervent wake up call given half the chance. For example, the Bahn Cuon is served steamed and filled with either minced meat or tofu & pickled vegetables, both versions made all the more tasty with Tia To, the wonderful purpley/green Vietnamese herb which boasts bold, palette awakening flavours. Likewise, Bahn Mi sandwiches are served fit to burst with pâté and meats (grilled pork or beef) alongside pickled vegetables and homemade sauces such as chilli mayo and Nuoc Mam. The resulting sandwich is presented to you tied up in string to prevent its contents escaping.
For something a bit different, order Maison Han’s Eggs in a Pan. They’re a nod to a morning tradition adhered to in cafes the length of Vietnam, where eggs are cooked to your personal preference and served sizzling at your table with crusty Vietnamese breads, pickles and meats. The Big Bear at Maison Han will present you with three sunny-side-up eggs, traditional Vietnamese pork sausage (Cha Lua), fig salami, sautéed vegetables (which are smoky and ever so slightly caramelised), a plate pilled high with delicious pâté and some pickled vegetables, and an awesome garnish of pickles to break up the richness of the eggs and the greasiness of the meat.
“The coffee mirrors France’s influence on Vietnamese roasting techniques by using both chocolate AND butter in the roast. It’s basically like mainlining sweet and salty crack.”
Vegan and vegetarian options of almost everything are available, and whilst the quality of the meat isn’t always top notch (the pastrami in the pho isn’t great; the Cha Lua in the breakfast pans reminds me a lot of spam, which on a personal level I’m not a fan of; the Vietnamese fig salami is tasty; the pâté is bloody marvellous) much of it is served in traditionally Vietnamese ways, so you’ll struggle to fault it.
Of course, to wash everything down, you really need to try Maison Han’s namesake coffee. Of the six varieties on offer I stuck to the HAN X MAROU blend which mirrors France’s influence on Vietnamese roasting techniques by using both chocolate AND butter in the roast. It’s basically like mainlining sweet and salty crack.
“Duc has created a sanctuary of modern-day Vietnamese flavours and the end result is a passion project of new experiences, great tastes, fair prices, lovely service and amazing crack. I mean coffee.”
It’s really easy to cast aspersions about Maison Han without ever actually stepping inside. The location; the abundance of vegan offerings; the matcha; the coconut milk lattes; the quirky dishes (their Instagram-able presentations); the in-house coffee roasting; the hip hop soundtrack playing in the background, it all screams of a certain stereotype. But that’s precisely the point – it’s easy. And frankly? A bit boring. Instead go and try this Vietnamese breakfast haven for yourself. Duc has created a sanctuary of modern-day Vietnamese flavours and the end result is a passion project of new experiences, great tastes, fair prices, lovely service and amazing crack. I mean coffee.
(ps. EXCITING FOOD NEWS! Duc and his team are working on developing a Vietnamese bread recipe, at the moment he thinks it’s 95% of the way there, and once he solves the mystery of the missing 5%, you can expect to see it served in Maison Han as well as at other Vietnamese restaurants across the city (many of which are already serving the Han Coffee Roasters blends). “It’s crazy” he tells me, “in France people queue up to order the Vietnamese baguettes in Asian markets. Here in Germany we all use the same standard baguettes, it makes no sense”. Stay tuned – this development is a whole new chapter for Berlin’s Vietnamese restaurants.)