The roll is wrapped in rice paper, thin as tissue, and combines cucumber, leeks, and daikon radish with glass noodles, fresh leaves, and shredded Peking duck. It’s dipped in deep red plum sauce, and disappears within a minute and a half.
Next up is the bánh mì. “This is the best sandwich in the world,” says Barry Wallace, settling in for a chat near the mint-green counter top of Páng, his small Vietnamese restaurant on Kevin Street Lower.
It started with mackerel.
Back in 2010, Wallace and his business partner Simon Whiteside opened a fish-and-chips stall in Sandyford Industrial Estate. “We wanted to get young Irish people eating mackerel again,” says Wallace, who was reared on the fish.
When the queues grew longer, an investor came aboard. The next stop for the pair was Brussels, Belgium, where they opened Bia Mara in 2011, a restaurant specialising in new takes on the classic fish and chips.
In 2012, they opened a sister restaurant, Hook, in Camden in London. Followed by Bia Mara in Antwerp in 2014 and a second Brussels location.
But Páng is a different beast, says Wallace.
He moved back to Dublin last summer, and this time, he has opened it alone. “My dream was to get back home and start something,” he says. “I really missed Dublin.”
In the kitchen, two chefs prep for the midday opening. A customer pushes open the door into the 20 sq ft brightly lit space, the walls covered in mint-green tiles.
Wallace looks up at the menu. Part of his job is explaining the food. Though found throughout Vietnam and East Asia, he says, not all Dubliners are familiar with rice paper rolls.
He recalls first trying them as a kid in Vietnam. Then in Melbourne, Australia, where the likes of Hanoi Hannah restaurant kicked off the craze over there.
“Vietnamese food is seriously healthy,” says Wallace. “The only major indulgence here is the bánh mì, which is a big sandwich.”
For €6, that comes with either lemongrass chicken, ginger beef brisket or roast sweet potato, served in a crusty roll with carrot, daikon pickles, hoisin mayo, coriander, mint and jalapeño.
The rice paper rolls, at €4 each, come filled with either satay chicken, Peking duck, smoked salmon, prawn and mango, teriyaki tofu or sweet potato, with various fillings packed into the quick, translucent snack.
For Páng’s recipes, Wallace has taken the traditional-with-a-twist approach. That involves taking ingredients like prawn, mango and Thai basil, but reinventing the traditional accompaniments.
Taking the standard Vietnamese dipping sauces, nuoc cham and nam jim, Wallace set about adapting these into various new versions.
“We’re bringing in green chilli with coriander, red chilli with Thai basil and blitzing them through soy and lime juice so you get these little, punchy explosions of flavour,” he says.
Trial and Error
Wallace spent last summer perfecting recipes in his kitchen at home in Ringsend. From a retail background, he picked up his culinary tricks along the way, in part from partner Whiteside.
Before Páng opened two weeks ago, he sought out London-based Vietnamese chef Thuy Pham, of the restaurant The Little Viet Kitchen in Islington. “She has taken London by storm,” says Wallace. “I had a little chat with her, she gave me some advice.”
For Páng’s flagship snack, Wallace spent months, back and forth, sourcing the right type of rice paper. It had to be durable but paper-thin. Many tore. “There’s a million brands out there, but I finally found the right one,” he says.
As well as the rice paper rolls and bánh mì, Páng’s menu also offers pho, traditional Vietnamese soup, for €8. There’s also vegan pho: mushrooms, snow peas, glass noodles, beansprouts, mint and basil in a ginger infused broth.
Sides come in at €3 each, and include blanched edamame in sriracha salt and a kale slaw with ginger tahini dressing. “We’re trying to slightly modernise things without going too far from the tradition,” says Wallace.
Value for money can be hard to come by on Dublin’s food scene, says Wallace. Part of that, in his view, comes down to high rents stifling potential restaurateurs.
But swindling abounds too. “It’s an open market for people to do so,” he says. “But the long-term goal of a restaurant should be to keep your customers coming in.”
Wallace says he may try, at some point, to get more Dubliners eating mackerel again. For now, though, Páng is his focus.
The space is small – just six high stools line the window – and it’s aimed towards lunch takeaways and office orders.
Behind the counter, in Páng’s small kitchen, chefs Cherry Yu and Nasir Mehmood ready themselves for lunch, chopping and peeling.
Already “aggressively eyeing” expansion elsewhere in the city, says Wallace, expect a second location within the next six months.
Páng opens Monday to Saturday 12pm to 9pm.