There is something new happening in the Gaston food scene. There’s a restaurant that has opened up whose name no one can seem to pronounce and who’s menu is written in a mix of languages. This unknown establishment is hidden in an old and run-down shopping plaza and so far only a select handful of Gastonians know about it. But even they are not quite sure what to make of it, except that they say they love the food and the vibe. Some people are calling the restaurant a Vietnamese restaurant, but do not let the fact that the menu is written (at least in part) in Vietnamese fool you. This is no Vietnamese Phở shop. It is so much more. Ask the owner and you will be told that the menu is a mod podge of dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. As a side note the walls are mod podge as well.
Before you step into this new establishment, know that you are not going to find the standard fare of Teriyaki Chicken or what have you. If you are an experienced Asian foody then you will likely find dishes you recognize like Pad Thai or Bún Thịt Nướng, but you will also find many you do not. If you are not as familiar with Asian food outside of the local take-out places, this restaurant is a great place to get immersed in the flavors that dominate Asia without having to travel to other states or other countries.
In an old Food Lion plaza a new and unusual restaurant has recently opened. So far, this place is mostly a mystery to passer-bys. The name is hard to pronounce, the logo is odd, and the description on the sign is written in some foreign language. Yet, the greatest treasures are often found wrapped in ugly or strange packaging and somehow the run-down look of the plaza adds to the charm of this locally owned establishment. To describe what this restaurant offers one would have to go beyond the menu. But the menu is a good starting point. Dishes from Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, and Japan are scattered throughout the pages with items as familiar as Wonton Soup along side those that are mostly unknown, like Canh Khoai Mỡ. Most people have never even heard of the latter item, and that should give you an idea of exactly what the owner wants to achieve with his new restaurant: to bring authentic and original flavors from Asia to North Carolina.
There really is no restaurant like this anywhere in the state—not even Charlotte can boast of establishments that offer some of the items our new restaurant has. But somehow the establishment is more than just a ‘place to get food’. As the owner says, “A small business is a part of the community and should be involved—in it’s own way—in making the community a better place.” Maybe that’s the reason for all the quotes hanging on the walls? What is this new place called Bep-pa? How is that even pronounced? What does it mean? We know the place is a restaurant. We know it serves a mix of Asian dishes—from Thai and Vietnamese to Korean and Japanese. We recognize some of the entrees—like Pho (properly written: Phở). But we don’t recognize others like the Jaengban Guksu or the Canh Rong Biển Hàn Quốc.
Is this place just a pan-Asian place like Jia or is it something else? Unless you are really in to Asian food it might be hard to decipher the differences between Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai cooking. Let the owner of Bep-pa explain it though and there are huge differences. Most of our big ‘Asian’ restaurants in Gaston County are of the Chinese Culinary tradition—meaning that they pull their seasonings, spices, and flavors from Chinese techniques and Chinese tastes. Places like JP’s House, Lotus, and Sakura (back when they were still open) all borrow from Chinese tradition. There is nothing wrong with that says the owner of Bep-pa, but it does mean that the flavor of the dishes comes out differently. He gives the comparison of Italian food as an example: a dish made in the Milanese style may be similar in name and content to one made in the Sicilian style, but the flavors could be wildly different. Asian food in America is very similar. Depending on the culinary style that an establishment uses, the flavors of two similarly named dishes can be a complete contrast from one another. Bep-pa is unlike all the other ‘Asian’ restaurants out there because it is borne of the Vietnamese culinary tradition, not the Chinese tradition. Vietnam historically has had many culinary influences. They have borrowed and adapted dishes and ingredients from China, Korea, Japan, and the many South Eastern Asian countries. Yet they have also had large influences from France (think: Bánh Mì) and America. The Vietnamese are experts at borrowing and improving. Not only that, but Vietnam’s geographical location provides a wide range of ingredients with which the Vietnamese have become familiar. Tropical spices and fruits are available year-round from the south but winter produce and spices are available from the northern part of the country. Taken together, the unique history and natural culinary resources of Vietnam make for different and delicious dishes. And though I have tried to describe those differences here, perhaps the best way to understand is through your own experience.
What does Bep-pa mean? Where did the name come from? Bep-pa is an Americanization of the Vietnamese words “Bếp” and “Ba” which, when written together, mean “Dad’s kitchen”. The owners chose this name because it hits upon the true meaning of what they hope to achieve with Bep-pa. The first and most obvious take-away from the name ‘Bep-pa’ is that a place called “dad’s kitchen” might aim to bring authentic flavors to the public. Instead of taking the vivid food that Asia has to offer and muting it with blandness to make it more acceptable to the existing mass-market tastes, Bep-pa wants to offer true, fully flavored dishes to those people that enjoy the unique and the flavorful. It should be telling too that the name is derived from Vietnamese words. Just like in Europe, which boasts of different culinary traditions originating from different countries and regions, Asia also has varying traditions of cooking. Bep-pa follows the Vietnamese culinary tradition, which has been influenced by other widely known places of culinary influence including China and France. But Vietnam also has developed it’s very own set of techniques and flavors. What this means for Gastonia is that the dishes will be both unique and flavorful. Perhaps the final, though certainly not the least, reason that the name Bep-pa was chosen by the owners is that, by invoking the word “Dad” into the name, they are trying to indicate their beliefs on exactly what a small business is. That is, in the words of one of the owners, “A small business is really a part of the community. They are not here to survive off the community, but rather to serve it. A business can have a net impact that is equal to that of a charity—although the means of achieving that impact and the type of impact may be different. Bep-pa will strive to make sure we are fulfilling our mission of being a positive impact on the people in Gaston County so that we, through our actions and our business, are helping to shape a better community for everyone.”