Welcome to Inside the Dishes, where Eater takes an in-depth look at the defining dishes at some of Detroit’s best restaurants.
Genevieve Vang is a bit of a renaissance woman. Before being named Eater Detroit’s 2018 Chef of the Year, Vang spent more than two decades wowing customers with her Thai cooking at Bangkok 96 in Dearborn Heights. Then in 2018, she decided to build on that success by branching out with a lively stall called Bangkok 96 Street Food at the Detroit Shipping Company food hall in Cass Corridor.
Vang takes pride in serving dishes that are not only delicious and versatile (much of the menu is vegan-friendly and gluten-free), but also beautiful. Whether it’s an order of deep-fried crab rangoon or crisp dumplings, items are often dressed up with fresh cilantro, shredded carrots, and springs of fresh basil. “The presentation is number one, because you eat with your eyes first,” she says. Customers can often see her behind the counter overseeing the small kitchen and bringing a trained eye to each item that passes through the food stall window.
For Vang, evolving in new and creative directions is a lifestyle. Born in Laos to Hmong parents, Vang grew up in the capital Vientiane. During her time there, she visited street markets where she was exposed to regional Laotian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian cooking and developed a taste for temple food. “They have to cook the cleanest and the best food with the best taste to give to the monks to bless everybody,” she says. “Street food is good too, but the temple has got the best food.”
When the Vietnam War began, Vang’s family fled as refugees to nearby Thailand where it was extremely difficult to make ends meet. After two years in Thailand, she was uprooted again to relocated to France in 1977. Vang went on to briefly work in the fashion industry. She and her husband Guy Vang (also originally from Laos) eventually applied for political asylum and immigrated to Michigan in 1989. There they worked in Wayne County’s first Thai restaurant, Bangkok Tiger, and went on to open Bangkok 96 on Telegraph Road in 1996.
A savvy entrepreneur, Vang has used her cooking skills over the years to branch out beyond the Dearborn Heights restaurant. Her metro Detroit empire includes a prepared foods brand called Thai Feast. “I think that’s a bigger challenge” than running a restaurant, she says. In 2011, the company launched a frozen meal line that was sold in more than 500 grocery stores on the East Coast. She’s since, scaled back to focus on powdered broths, seasonings, and sauces — some of which she uses in her restaurant recipes. “You have to know marketing. You have to know your audience. You have to know the price point. You have to know who can help you produce your meal, and you have to know your customer,” she says.
In expanding to a second restaurant, Vang once again used her marketing skills to research trends and identify the right place to expand. Around five years ago, she began looking into opening a business in Detroit, but wanted to make sure she got the location and the menu just right. “To come to Detroit, you’ve got to get ready. Not just come and open a doors,” Vang says. “All chefs need to understand that every day, a new place opens... So you’ve got to be ready for that.”
Vang recalls how much effort it took to develop the right menu for Bangkok 96 Street Food. The night before she was due to submit her menu to Detroit Shipping Company’s landlord, she was still working on developing her signature dish — the pad thai roll. Here is a guide to Vang’s essential dishes at Bangkok 96 Street Food in Detroit.
The candied beef is a staple on Bangkok 96 Street Food’s menu. Vang uses beef shoulder, a cut with very little fat and a lot of fibrous tendon that she says would usually be more suited to making stew. At her food stall, Vang instead slices it into tiny pieces and marinates the meat with salt, pepper, garlic, chili, lemongrass, fish sauce and tamari before deep-frying it. The result is slightly chewy morsels of flavorful beef. It’s a recipe Vang says she made for Clint Eastwood while working as a caterer on the set of the 2008 film Gran Torino.
Customers at times are put off by the name. “A lot of people thought candied beef is very sweet,” she says. In reality, the dish actually packs some heat and the name refers to the candy-sized cuts of meat.
Pad Thai Roll
Sliced into bite-sized disks like a sushi roll and topped with fresh herbs, peanuts, and sauce, the pad thai roll is the go-to dish for customers at Bangkok 96 Street Food. The food stall’s version features pad thai and a choice of chicken, beef, or lentil tofu. Everything is wrapped in a choice of wheat or rice wrapper depending on whether customers want to make it gluten-free. The wrapper is then toasted until crispy. The sauce, like all the sauces at the stall, is vegan and the recipe took Vang six months to perfect. Vang says the dish accounts for roughly 80 percent of Bangkok 96 Street Food’s revenue.
Customers can thank the Food Network for the Thai pizza at Bangkok 96 Street Food. Chef Vang appeared in an episode of Clash of the Grandmas in 2016, in which she was asked to create a pizza using a waffle iron. While the waffle pizza didn’t win over the judges, Vang tweaked her recipe and reintroduced it at the food hall. The pizza features a rice or wheat wrapper baked and layered with cheese, veggies, and Bangkok 96’s proprietary spice mix. Occasionally the restaurant adds dumplings to the top.
96 Grilled Chicken
Around six months into the food stall’s opening, Vang decided to freshen up the menu by adding the 96 Grilled Chicken. Bangkok 96 Street Food uses chicken breast, that’s seasoned, thinly sliced, and grilled until golden brown on the outside and tender on the inside. Vang says the spicy chicken breast quickly became a popular item on the menu, rivaling the pad thai roll.