For years, pastry chef Thoa Nguyen dreamed of running her own Parisian-style, Asian-fusion bakery in Colorado. It just took a family business, a few years and the perfect spot to finally bring Banh & Butter Bakery Cafe to fruition at 9935 East Colfax Avenue.
“It was like a whole five-year plan,” says Nguyen. “I left the family business, worked at Whole Foods to learn the corporate side, went to the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts and worked as a pasty instructor. All this gave me time to work on the business plan.”
The first time Nguyen really embraced French pastry art was in 2010, when she left Denver for France in order to go to school. She fell in love with the delicate layers of pastry, flaky croissants and iconic baguettes. She knew then that of all the food to make, it was French pastry that held her heart.
She also knew she wanted to bring those skills back home. While she was overseas, her parents, who used to own New Saigon Vietnamese restaurant, started to build out New Saigon Bakery with the idea that their daughter would take over when she returned home and have her dream bakery. But it didn’t turn out that way.
“My mom let me create a menu and take care of my French pastry and the cake side, and she took care of the banh mi,” says Nguyen of New Saigon Bakery. “But because of the reputation the banh mi had, there was nothing we made that I could really bring my French experience to.”
She did make a splash with her picture-perfect crepe cakes, their delicate layers towering up to create sweet rainbows and chocolate masterpieces. But while Nguyen loves crepe cakes, it became the only thing she was doing at New Saigon. Everyone wanted one, and since she was alone on the bakery side, there wasn’t any time left for those flaky, buttery pastries and laminated doughs she longed to make.
“New Saigon was a family vision, not my vision, and my parents knew I had plans and I was looking for my own space,” notes Nguyen, who found it hard to leave the business her parents built for her but knew she needed her own project. “I couldn’t put in my French skills, since it’s more about Vietnamese baking.”
With Banh & Butter, she wanted to use the French techniques she learned while adding a bit of her own culture into the mix. That’s why guests can get a slice of her signature crepe cake as well as an ube-mochi cupcake and a perfect almond croissant along with a matcha-infused cruffin, which is a cross between a muffin and a croissant. The spot also serves banh mi alongside classic Parisian-style ham and butter sandwiches. Nguyen uses the same bread recipe as New Saigon does, but with a slight hydration tweak so that the baguettes come out more like the ones in France instead of the large, flaky, hoagie-like rolls at her parents’ place. Both are delicious, but unique to each spot.
“I remember walking in Lyon [France]and every bakery had a baguette sandwich that you get on the go and eat,” recalls Nguyen.
Nguyen found her dream bakery in the former Third Culture space on East Colfax next to Baba & Pop’s Pierogi. The area has slowly been transforming into an arts district, something that both enticed her and helped her decide what kind of vibe she wanted. The idea, she says, is to build a community around the cafe and support artists like herself. After all, she adds, a pastry chef is an artist, too.
Inside, among the cases laden with artfully crafted pastries in hues of purple, pink, brown, green and tan, art by local creators lines the walls. In one corner, shelves of beautiful plants curated by Living Decor Store take up residence, along with pots and even more photos and paintings. All of it is available for purchase, and this aspect is something Nguyen wants to continue to grow and promote in her bakery.
Not only does Nguyen run her own bakery now, but her sister, An Nguyen, owns Savory Vietnam (2200 West Alameda Avenue), Westword’s 2022 Best of Denver pick for Best Vietnamese Restaurant. New Saigon Bakery is still going strong, too, with her parents running the show and churning out those popular banh mi sandwiches and other Vietnamese goodies. As for her parents, Nguyen says they love her new bakery and cafe and are very proud of what she has built — and based on the lines on a recent Saturday, the neighborhood is happy she’s there, too.
Banh & Butter is located at 9935 East Colfax Avenue and is open from 8 am to 4 pm Sunday through Thursday and 8 am to 6 pm Friday and Saturday. For more information, visit banhandbutter.com.