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At Pinky’s Ca Phe, chef Leemo Han pushes the boundaries of traditional Vietnamese cuisine, such as his version of bo tai chanh, centre, a rare beef salad served in a hollowd-out marrow bone.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Last fall, David Huynh, one of the owners of the West End cocktail bar Civil Liberties, went on a research trip to Vietnam, his parents' homeland. There, in Ho Chi Minh City, he met many relatives for the first time and celebrated with a week of family feasts for 20.

After every meal, he watched two aunts circle the table and argue over the ingredients of each dish. He suspected they were tallying a bill to be split among the family until he was handed a notebook after the final meal.

"It was a bunch of recipes. She knew what I was doing," Mr. Huynh says. "So, she gave it to me and said, 'This will help.'"

The voyage transformed Mr. Huynh. He came away with a new sense of identity and a desire to change the flavour of Vietnamese cuisine in Toronto. Starting with a pop-up and hoping to move to a brick-and-mortar location by the end of this year, he wants to move past pho and banh mi. (Both, by the way, came about when French colonialism collided with Vietnamese food. The baguettes for banh mi and the beef scraps for pho broth were new to a region where bread was unknown and cows were working animals, not food.)

It was similar voyage that inspired Leemo Han, the Toronto restaurateur and chef responsible for both Hanmoto and Oddseoul. He took an eating research trip to Vietnam last year. The results of his discoveries will be available for tasting by the end of this month at Pinky's Ca Phe (53 Clinton St., north of College), a Vietnamese-inspired restaurant and bar that, notably, will not serve pho.

It's been a labour of love, since it's a quirky space (once a family residence) that's taken seemingly forever to renovate. In addition, the food is original and hard to execute, especially in a small space. For starters, Pinky's interpretation of bo tai chanh, a rare-beef salad, will be served in a hollowed-out marrow bone and smothered in herbs, lime and beef marrow sauce before being torched. Mr. Han considered doing the final torching of the dish tableside, but doesn't know whether there's enough room in some of the tiny corners to make that feasible.

He'll also offer spring rolls – without the rice paper that generally holds it all together. Instead, traditional-tasting filling will be wrapped up in a chicken wing. Other dishes are more conventional and will be renderings of some of the dishes he liked best while on his eating tour of Vietnam.

"When I was in Hoi An, there was one place that did every dish with crab – rice with crab, vermicelli with crab, claws with tamarind sauce, everything was cooked in a wok and some of the dishes even still had the shells in it," Mr. Han recalls of the town that inspired his crab rice dish. "Obviously, I'll take out the shells, but I'm still going to keep it dirty, with the garlicky flavour and the fire of the wok."

Other than removing the shells for North American diners, Mr. Han says dishes such as this can't really be improved. Not everything he ate in Vietnam, however, was better than what you can get here in Toronto, or, especially, where he grew up in South Philadelphia, which, he says, is home to some truly excellent Vietnamese restaurants.

"Some people say L.A. has better Korean food than Korea," Mr. Han says. "It's the same thing with Vietnamese food. There's a lot of people who immigrated from Vietnam and made it their own and it's really good. I was surprised by the food in Vietnam, but not always in a good way."

Mr. Huynh would agree. The home-cooked meals were remarkable, but he was underwhelmed by some of the restaurant food in the southern cities. Mr. Huynh says the pho, for instance, often has added sugar and MSG, both of which are less common in the north, where chefs practise more restraint. To better understand regional differences, he took cooking classes in every city he visited.

Almost immediately upon return, Mr. Huynh began bringing that flavour experience to Toronto with a New Year's Eve dinner pop-up at Civil Liberties. On the menu was aromatic pho, as well as other dishes, such as goi du du bo kho (papaya salad with beef jerky) and thit kho tau (caramelized pork belly and egg). Looking forward, Mr. Huynh is most excited about cao lau, the signature dish from the northern city of Hoi An. It's a barbecued pork noodle offering, made with thick, hand-cut, smoked and seasoned noodles and topped with fresh herbs and crunchy bean sprouts.

"There's this crispy crunch from the deep-fried noodle dough, so it's got this fantastic chewy, crunchy, sweet barbecue, salty-soy quality that's distinctly Chinese but with a fresh herb influence from Vietnamese cuisine," he says. "It seemed like the perfect marriage of both food traditions and, since my family on my father's side was originally from China, it spoke so strongly to me."

For both chefs, the trips to Asia were about more than learning technique and finding recipes. They were also about adding layers of understanding to their own experience of shifting migrant foodways, and then taking it further. Mr. Han is well-known for a certain irreverent celebration of cultural exchange, as opposed to slavish attempts to produce "authentic" cuisine. Oddseoul, for example, is a Korean-ish restaurant with a bulgogi cheesesteak that honours Mr. Han's hometown, Philly, and a squash poutine that will make even the most tradition-bound Canadian rethink the dish. Not exactly Seoul food.

At Pinky's Ca Phe, Mr. Han is interested in the relationship between Americans and Vietnam – on both historical and cultural levels. That'll be reflected in the décor, roughly inspired by Vietnam in the late 1960s and 1970s, and of course, the menu.

"I'm not going to reinvent every dish," Mr. Han says. "If it's not broken, don't try to fix it. But my food is not authentic. It's not going to be fusion, either. It's just my take on the dish, and that's just the way I try to make food."

Chef Matt DeMille combines a mix of fresh seafood with a tasty vegetable broth for a tasty dinner good for any season.