Not the Same Same

FOR MANY CHEFS, backpacking through Asia is a defining moment — one we hear about so often it’s become somewhat cliché. You know the stories, the places: a favorite hawker stall in Singapore, a moonlit fish fry on an untouristed Thai beach. Eating in Asia is amazing. We get it.

Chad Kubanoff, chef/owner of Same Same, a two-month-old Vietnamese joint in Northern Liberties, has a story that begins much like others’. “An episode of Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour sparked my interest in Vietnam,” he says. “At 21, I packed my bags and flew to Ho Chi Minh City with a determination to experience [the food] for myself.”

But instead of bumming around, Kubanoff accepted an executive chef position at a fine-dining restaurant near the Saigon River with a team of 18 non-English-speaking cooks. “I immersed myself in their culture and brought the restaurant to a higher level,” he says. He earned himself awards for restaurant of the year and regional best chef of the year in Ho Chi Minh City. Then, he and his girlfriend (now wife) began exploring the country by motorbike and turned their travels into a culinary tour company, Back of the Bike Tours, which is in operation today.

It’s an impressive CV (to say nothing of the time Kubanoff spent at New York’s Daniel and Chicago’s Alinea), one that lends his cooking at Same Same a real sense of authority. Kubanoff fries his prawn crackers, transforming the ground crustaceans into ethereal chips whose crunch can be heard from Old City. Fish sauce and garlic explode in slices of pork sausage lovingly bundled with basil, cilantro and pickled daikon in double layers of frilly green-leaf lettuce and mustard leaves.

Same Same is fast-casual style. You order at the counter/open kitchen and grab a seat in the 45-seat space, where lazy fans buzz on walls faux-finished to look old and ruined by tropical humidity. A contented, languid feeling pervades place, like just waking up from a good nap.

Refreshing, tangy and herbaceous, Kubanoff’s take on ubiquitous Vietnamese chicken salad snaps you to attention. It’s exactly what you want to eat during a Philadelphia summer — which, come to think of it, is probably not that different than a Vietnamese summer. Shredded cabbage, delicate poached chicken, shaved white onion, lemon, peanuts, a storm of herbs and just enough fish sauce … I could eat it every day. And wash it down with a glass of da me, a tamarind quencher that’s half-drink, half-snack. Kubanoff serves it with a straw and a spoon, so you can fish out the tamarind pulp and toasted peanuts.

Dessert is moist bread pudding made with leftover banh mi rolls soaked in coconut-banana custard. Topped with crushed peanuts, the confection rises like an island from a moat of coconut crème anglaise. Unlike the rest of Same Same’s menu, “This is in no way something you would find in ‘Nam,” Kubanoff laughs.

I don’t think anyone’s going to mind.