We had seen Momma Tong in the Farmers Market scene, mostly at NOSH/Wholly Handmade (as we don’t make it out to their regular spot in St. Albert often), but sadly didn’t take the plunge and try out any of their goods- we blame it on the famers market overwhelm of TOO many good choices and sticking to the regular go-to’s. WELL when we saw that they recently opened up a brick and mortar on Whyte Ave, we knew it was time to make a visit happen.
Although minus 40 weather hit, I was determined to make it out to buy ‘take & make at home’ items, because what better time than a deep freeze to have easy, made at home yummyness- especially piping hot pho. We are so glad we bundled up and went for a visit, as we had a lovely chat with Van Tong, owner of Momma Tong and learned all about her journey in starting a business showcasing culture through food.
When we asked Van to tell us about how this all began, she shared that she was “never a believer of only eating good food on the weekends” and was always craving Vietnamese comfort food, but with the busyness of life, found that it wasn’t always easy to make this food everyday. This started her personal journey of doing meal prep on the weekends, so during those busy weeknights, she could still eat good, with much less work. Out of a new habit to make her life easier was born the idea of Momma Tong- realizing that others may also want the same convenience of tasty, fresh and healthy food with minimized prep and cooking times.
We asked Van about how she learned to cook, and the food inspiration connected to the business. She shared that for a portion of her adult life, she was lucky to have her mom, and aunties always cooking for her, and that a common Vietnamese phrase “If you have a talented mother, you have a useless daughter” applied to her. It wasn’t until she moved to Taiwan for work that she found herself missing mom’s food. This is when she began making those long distance phone calls, getting coaching from mom as she learned the tricks to making her recipes.
As for the Korean inspiration, this comes from her husbands culture. Van’s Korean Auntie and sister-in-law became her go-to for the inside scoop on how to make some of the Korean foods she had come to love. Momma Tong is truly a reflection of Van herself, the matriarchs in her family and her blended cultures.
Van came to Canada when she was 2, her family are considered to be the ‘boat people’ referring to when a large influx of Vietnamese refugees arrived in Canada in the 70’s and early 80’s due to the impacts of the Vietnam War. Despite the challenges faced by having to start all over, in a completely different culture, her mother and father started a business that has been running for 38 years- Road Runner Pizza and Donair. Van shared memories of growing up in the kitchen, hanging out at the family restaurant. She looks back at these times fondly, realizing that these were sacred family bonding experiences, and she now creates these similar memories with her own kids at Momma Tong. In fact, the location she is in now, was the starting place of Momma Tong, using the former kitchen of Road Runner to prepare her goods for the St. Albert farmers market she had become a regular vendor at.
“So why a brick and mortar location, why now?” I asked Van. “The time was just right, we couldn’t keep going the way we were going”. Business was increasing, and finding quiet times to work in her parents kitchen, while juggling family life just wasn’t meshing, and so they made the decision to transform the former Road Runner Location into Momma Tong- with a focus on frozen, take and make at home foods. She shared that many people thought it was a COVID business because of the timing, but it was truly just a family business that happened to start at this hectic time in the world. She’s overcome many challenges, COVID aside, with the rising cost of food/ingredients, and people’s perception of quality around frozen foods, it’s been a journey getting to this point. She has worked hard to stay true to her 2 core principles “Authentic Ingredients” and “Full Flavour”, and adapted over the years, taking customer feedback to heart and making the best products she can, with a core focus on consistency in flavours. From the type of lemongrass she uses, to the butchers, care and consideration go into every detail…. And you can really tell in the taste. One thing she also focused on is packaging- ensuring that she could lock in the freshness.
After spending the evening with Van, we wanted to try EVERYTHING, but opted to start our Momma Tong experience with the pho noodle soup, bulgogi pork, Vietnamese chicken wings and the japchae. Since we happened to be visiting during the January cold snap, we opted to start off with the pho, and honestly, we were skeptical. We are big pho lovers, and definitely had a bias that there was no way frozen could come close to sitting in a small shop in Chinatown, enjoying a warm bowl. WE WERE WRONG! The broth was soooo tasty, dare I say better than many of the restaurants we have visited? It was so quick and easy to throw everything together and there are full directions on the packaging as well as videos on the website. It’s practically fool proof.
Van gave us some Gai Om (often referred to as culantro…. Not to be confused with cilantro) to enjoy with our soup, and told us about how this is a traditional addition to the soup. We loved learning about this herb that we had never tried, and it had a peppery, super charged cilantro like flavour that really enhanced the soup. We HIGHLY recommend the pho, it makes 2 big bowls, although they were good portion sizes, we would love to be able to buy some extra meat- maybe a future product?
Next up were the Korean inspired dishes & chicken wings. It was all so good, but the real stand out for us was the spicy pork bulgogi. The flavour was perfect, and the cut of the meat made it so tender and tasty. We threw in some green cabbage and turned it into a stir fry situation. This is such a versatile meal option, you could easily cook up some rice, and boom- a great meal in under 30 minutes. Van gave us some of the “chicken mu” to try, which is pickled daikon; we paired it with our bulgogi pork creation and it gave the perfect balance of sweet/sour to the spicy meal. She also sells housemade fish sauce and kimchi, which are on our list to try next time.
We asked Van what her favourite food is, and she said although it’s so hard to choose (we can relate… is it even possible to choose just one), that she would have to go with Bún bò Huế – a spicier beef & pork based soup from central Vietnam. We can’t wait to try her Momma Tong version. The shop itself is so very cute (with parking!), showcasing a curated selection of dishware, utensils, and Vietnamese coffee/accessories. She also recently launched the hot food, take-out daily specials (follow her on Instagram or find the menu on her website). We were pretty impressed with everything about Momma Tong and Van…. And we are ready to happily give our money to this locally run shop, focusing on quality and authenticity. Van shared that every spring roll they make is hand rolled by her, and often her mom and Auntie, laughing together in the back of the shop as they cook. We all know that food made with love tastes better, so give this local biz a try, you won’t regret it.