Walthamstow

Walthamstow’s Cà Phê Culture

Emma Curzon on how Vietnamese restaurant Hanoi Cà Phê began its life as a race against time, for St James Street Big Local When her grandmother was […]By Waltham Forest Echo

Gina Lely outside the restaurant in CRATE St James (Hanoi Cà Phê)
Gina Lely outside the restaurant in CRATE St James (Hanoi Cà Phê)

Emma Curzon on how Vietnamese restaurant Hanoi Cà Phê began its life as a race against time, for St James Street Big Local

When her grandmother was diagnosed with dementia, Hanoi Cà Phê founder Gina Lely knew she needed to act fast to preserve the family recipes, in order to one day pass them on to her two sons. It was a mission that saw her abandon a 9-5 office job to launch a market stall in 2015 and, just six years later, serve food inspired by her grandmother in Walthamstow, Leyton and Hackney Wick.

Growing up in Vietnam, food was an integral part of Gina’s childhood. “In the Vietnamese tradition, food is so highly regarded,” she told The Echo, “When you walk into someone’s house, whether you know them or not, they would say, have you eaten? Not hi, how are you… it’s like, have you eaten? When you’ve sat down and you’ve eaten, then we can start the conversation. It’s so vital that you feed and you show people your love and kindness and friendship through food.”

While the success of her market stall quickly led to pop-ups, supper clubs and corporate events, a pivotal moment came when CRATE St James Street, still under construction, started looking for businesses to host. “They did an opinion poll and they asked what food people would want, and our name came up quite a lot of times.” It was, she recalls, “incredibly flattering, and we’re really grateful for the community’s support.”


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Hanoi Cà Phê has more than earned that love, if their food is anything to go by. The menu includes various flavours of pho (rice noodle soup), banh mi (Vietnamese baguettes) and noodle salads. For something lighter, there are sweet potato chips, spring rolls and more – all washed down with some Vietnamese-style iced coffee. Gina estimates around half the menu was directly inspired by Grandma Quyen, who sadly died in June: “The way she would prepare the pho, slow-cooked over 24 hours, the ingredients she’d put in there, the marinade for the tofu – that’s definitely taken from her recipes.”

When the pandemic hit and the restaurant, like most small, local businesses, began to struggle, the support of Waltham Forest’s residents became more vital than ever. Gina credits her ability to stay afloat to having “a bit of a stubborn streak” and managed to get by on deliveries. However, the commission demanded by apps like Deliveroo and Uber Eats meant it was hard to profit and she instead focused on “keeping our name and our brand and our food alive” until the all-clear was given to reopen.

A few months later and business is booming enough to expand outside the borough, with a new venture Hanoi Chay recently opening at Hackney Bridge. Gina described it as “almost like the sister company to Hanoi Cà Phê”, as well as “100% plant-based”. It’s another tribute to Grandma Quyen, who would set aside several days each month to follow a vegan diet as part of her Buddhist practice.

Non-carnivorous Walthamstow residents don’t need to worry, though: every section of Hanoi Cà Phê’s menu has at least one item suitable for vegetarians and vegans. So if you’re curious about Vietnamese cuisine, then now is the perfect time to visit CRATE St. James Street and give this vibrant local business a try.


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