It’s hard for Vietnamese food to stand out in Wichita because:
1.There’s so much of it.
2.Virtually all of it is so good.
Nevertheless, the annual Vietnamese New Year’s dinner at St. Anthony Catholic Church manages the feat thanks to scores of parishioners who combine their culinary skills for a unique event.
From noon to 11 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 2, dozens of booths in the church’s activity center will serve up pho, banh mi, bun cha, fried rice, summer rolls and other sweet and savory delicacies amid New Year’s decorations and souvenirs, games and music.
It’s a little like being dropped inside a food hall in Da Nang where a good portion of the crowd is wearing Kansas City Chiefs gear.
The food sale resumes at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, culminating in an elaborate multicourse seated dinner for reserved tables of eight in the center’s upper hall. The evening also features a dragon dance, auction, raffle and more music. Tables for this dinner will all be taken by the time you read this, but there’s always next year! (And plenty of food available outside the main hall late into the night).
St. Anthony, located just east of downtown at the corner of Second and Ohio, was established in 1886 for German Catholic families in the area. Today, it primarily serves Vietnamese Catholic immigrants and their families, although English masses are also offered. The current church, completed in 1905, underwent extensive renovations starting in 1999 and has received several historical preservation awards.
Mai Lee was one of the parishioners who suggested the dinner and food sale in 2018 as a way to raise money for the church. One of the “boat people” who came to Wichita in 1982, she works on the assembly line at Textron Aviation, which perhaps prepared her for coordinating an event with so many moving parts.
“We have a lot of people helping us cook — not only one or two days,” she said.
To produce the big dinner, Lee said, parish cooks divide up in five groups of 15 to 20 people. Last year’s dinner featured nine courses, starting with crab and asparagus soup and ending with a perfectly ripe kumquat. A few weeks before this year’s event, 80 people showed up to help make mung bean rice cakes, which can be frozen until they’re needed. Lee said as many as 1,000 bowls of pho, a noodle soup, may be served over two days.
The dinner and sale have been discovered by non-Vietnamese. Lee estimates they make up about 20 percent of attendees.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of all my parish volunteers,” said Father Ben Nguyen, the church’s pastor. “They are extremely dedicated to providing the best food for the church community and all those who come to our doors.”
Bun Cha (Vietnamese Meatballs)
Here’s a popular Vietnamese dish. Try making it yourself, then compare to the version available at St. Anthony.
1 lb. ground pork
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
½ finely chopped green onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Shape into 12 meatballs. Bake on a lightly greased pan in a 400-degree oven about 25 minutes or until done, turning once. Serve with nuoc cham (see accompanying recipe) and cooked rice or vermicelli noodles, cilantro, bean sprouts or other garnish.
Note: Fish sauce is available in Asian markets and the Asian aisle of some supermarkets.
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons vinegar (preferably rice or apple)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/3 cup water
1 jalapeno, serrano or thai chile, seeded and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic
Stir together all ingredients in a bowl until sugar is dissolved.