Bà & Mẹ: A Vietnamese Pit Stop with Soul in Callicoon, NY
26 Upper Main St | Callicoon, NY
The food industry never held any particular fascination for Nhi Mundy, whose Vietnamese take-away counter in the hamlet of Callicoon, New York, serves one of the most spirit-lifting lunches on the Delaware River. She’d grown up in the restaurant her parents opened when they immigrated to the United States. She had her own aspirations — and eventually moved to New York to pursue them, graduating from FIT and starting a career in advertising. But when Nhi and her husband found themselves flooded out of their Manhattan apartment after Hurricane Sandy (and living in a hotel with their three children), she braced herself for a change of course. “We decided that, financially, it made sense to move upstate. Just for the time being. Just to figure things out,” she says. It wasn’t an easy transition for Nhi, who spent six lonely months working remotely for her Manhattan-based employer, an online marketing agency. Soon, she was thinking seriously about what else she might do in her new domain — and what it most needed. Wholesome, convincing ethnic food, it turned out, was at the top of her list.
“I just kind of jumped into it,” says Nhi, who drew upon childhood memories and her mother’s recipes in the absence of culinary education or experience. “I hadn’t cooked, per se, but I knew how the food was supposed to taste. It was all there; it was just a matter of finding it again as an adult.”
Part of the charm of Nhi’s cooking is that she knows, instinctively, when to hew to tradition and when to let herself adapt freewheelingly; her menu speaks to the richness and complexity of her heritage. “I’m an immigrant,” she says, “but I grew up in the States, so I’m American, too. I have both.” Hence the easygoing mix of classic dishes (lemongrass pork) and playful riffs (kid-friendly organic banh mi hot dogs).
So winning was Bà & Mẹ’s Callicoon debut, that last year, Nhi opened an encore shop across the river in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. The restaurants have brought her not only a livelihood, but also the community she craved as a recent transplant. So much community, in fact, that she founded DVEIGHT Magazine, a triannual newsprint publication that celebrates the artists, ruralists, and trailblazers with whom she shares the Upper Delaware Valley. “Each allows me the freedom to create however I want to create,” says Nhi, referring to her culinary and editorial undertakings. “I’ve never really been able to do that. I’ve always worked for someone else, on behalf of someone else’s vision. In that sense it’s been very satisfying.”
“Food is so different from any other memory,” says Nhi. “When you eat something truly nourishing, it stays with you. You’ll always remember your mother’s cooking, or your grandmother’s.” The name Bá & Mẹ is both a clever play on words and a tribute to her family. Said quickly, it sounds very much like “banh mi” but means “grandmother and mother” in Vietnamese.
Four days a week, locals and weekenders queue for Nhi’s thoughtful, down-to-earth interpretations of her mother’s recipes: herb-filled “summer rolls” with peanut sauce, hearty banh mi sandwiches, and vibrant, healing bowls of jasmine rice or vermicelli. Produce, pork, and poultry are sourced regionally on both sides of the Delaware River, and take-away orders are packed in eco-friendly containers.
“It’s funny — I drank Vietnamese coffee even when I was a kid,” says Nhi. “It was delicious. My parents used to offer us coffee with a piece of French bread, and we’d dip the bread into the coffee.” At Bá & Mẹ, she serves it strong and sweet, in a traditional Vietnamese filter. Poured over ice, it’s just the dessert for a sultry summer afternoon.
“As soon as I saw this little take-out window, the wheels were turning,” says Nhi. “I’d lived in so many small spaces in New York City. I looked at this one and thought, ‘I can totally make it work.'” Formerly home to a yogurt shop, the space in the weathered wood building opposite the railroad tracks had been vacant for eight years. Now fitted with a cheerful awning, a trio of counter stools, and a pair of sidewalk tables—all of them a kicky Sriracha red, the facade is equal parts Callicoon grit and Indochine-inspired panache. In the Lilliputian kitchen, Nhi’s staff has prep down to a science.
Bá & Mẹ is often hailed as “authentic” by food editors and banh mi connoisseurs, incredulous at having met with such transportive flavors in a pin-dot town on the New York-Pennsylvania border. “It’s the nuances,” explains Nhi. “For example, if you order a sandwich from a trendy place in the city, you’ll probably get it on a rustic baguette, which is not the proper way to eat it. The bread should be fluffy on the inside, and on the outside, just crispy enough that it breaks, but not hard. It shouldn’t hurt your mouth when you chew it.” Nhi’s French baguettes are baked to her specifications and dropped off each morning by a local Sullivan County baker.
Nhi’s cooking is decidedly more vegetable-forward than what you find at most Vietnamese take-out spots. Her summer rolls, wrapped in smooth, clear rice paper, are filled with crisp greens and pickled carrots. Her tofu and mushroom bowls come with vegan dressing, her own concoction (the textbook fish sauce-based version is available, too). In Honesdale, where she serves pho after Labor Day, she offers vegetarian broth. “That’s just my personality showing through,” she says. But when it comes to dietary preferences, the menu is refreshingly egalitarian. “Our chicken is really good.”
The Callicoon counter closes annually after Columbus Day, but its younger sibling in Honesdale, which has a petite indoor dining room designed by Juliette Hermant of Maison Bergogne and Anie Stanley of Woolheater Wares, stays open throughout the winter. “Now everyone is asking when I’m going to open a third shop,” says Nhi, conceding that she’s considered neighboring Delaware County for her next outpost. “I’m always interested in doing the next thing.”
“Working in the kitchen is like nothing I’ve ever done,” says Nhi. “It’s very physical, very mental. It requires every skill. It can be stressful. But at the end of the day, when it’s all over, and you see that you’ve accomplished all that you set out to — it’s like walking out of Bikram yoga, you know? Like, that was painful but also so good. When people sit down and share food with you, it’s a really magical thing, and I get that connection everyday.”