Van Nguyen and Lanni Vu are a mother daughter restaurateur duo from Vietnam. Van, a widowed mother of seven children at the time, made the decision to immigrate to the United States a few days before the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The food they serve at their restaurant, Saigon Kitchen, in Glover Park Washington, D.C. is traditional Vietnamese family recipes to be shared with loved ones.
This is Mom’s cooking at its savory-est.
Journey to America
It is Saigon in 1975 and the communists are coming. As the U.S. Embassy began to shut down – Van Nguyen realized it was time to gather her children and flee. With the clothes on their backs, Van and her seven children fled by plane to a camp in the Philippines and a few days later, Amarillo Texas, sponsored by a local church.
The first five years in America were extremely hard for Van and her family. The language barrier and non-existent Vietnamese community in Texas made navigating their new environment difficult. It was at this point, however, that their extended family unit began to play a crucial role.
“Whoever wasn’t in school and could work, worked” explains Lanni, Van’s youngest daughter and official owner of Saigon Kitchen. Grandparents and older children helped raise the young– everyone did a little bit of everything.
By 1980 Van and her family were back on their feet and decided to move to Denver, Colorado. Her family was so large they shared two apartments in the same complex. Van opened up her first Vietnamese restaurant and market, however, “business was extremely slow,” explained Van. No one was familiar with Vietnamese food or cooking and there were not enough Vietnamese in Colorado to support the niche market.
Lanni fondly remembers gathering on the weekends with the small Vietnamese community in Denver to watch American movies.
“We watched anything we could get our hands on,” says Lanni.
Business picked up for Van once a journalist came and ate at the restaurant.
Lanni recalls her Mom being suspicious of a man as he came in to eat by himself two days in a row. Business surprisingly picked up shortly after, and the mystery man approached Van and explained he was a journalist who had written about their restaurant in a local paper.
After that, people started coming in from out of town to eat at the restaurant.
A marriage brought part of Van’s family over to the East coast, and being a tight knit family, Lanni and her mother were quick to follow. Lanni opened Saigon Kitchen’s sister restaurant, Rice Paddies Grill, in Bethesda, Maryland as their first restaurant endeavor on the East coast. This quaint eatery serves made to order traditional Vietnamese and fusion dishes, such as pho, at fast food speed. I may add that Rice Paddies Grill is the only restaurant serving pho in downtown Bethesda.
Saigon to Washington D.C.
After settling on the East coast and their first restaurant success in Bethesda, Maryland, Lanni decided to open Saigon Kitchen in Glover Park, Washington D.C. Aside from being home to a number of embassies and the Vice President’s mansion – Glover Park is just plain charming. Row houses from the 20’s and 30’s, tree lined streets and walk able ethnic restaurants make this Northwest D.C. neighborhood an easy place to visit, live or stroll through.
The restaurant boasts a spacious upstairs dining room with plenty of natural light, fresh flowers and a full service bar. Saigon Kitchen’s menu is more extensive than it’s sister restaurant, fully illustrating the wonderfully complex and flavorful palate of Vietnamese cuisine. Elements of Chinese and French cuisine and cooking techniques create a rich and multifaceted menu of flavors – there is bound to be something for your taste buds to enjoy.
Lanni served me their Bun Bo Hue, a beef and lemongrass soup from their Pho menu. It is a new item and it is absolutely delicious! From the southern part of Veitnam, Bun Bo Hue has a rich beef broth with a delicate lemongrass flavor. In the typical Vietnamese fashion, the soup is garnished with fresh cabbage, pickled banana flower and a peppery mild Vietnamese herb. I slurped rice noodles while Lanni explained she adds fresh lemongrass regularly to the broth to keep the flavor alive.
Following the soup, I sampled their crispy spring roll. Crispy on the outside and flavorful on the inside– their spring roll has chicken, crab and whole prawn shrimp, wrapped in a delicate sheet of netted rice paper. Full belly and completely satisfied, I asked what inspired them to overcome hardships faced during their journey as immigrants.
“It’s always been about family. Providing an education for my children, that’s really what it’s always been about.”
Family certainly seems to be a central theme to Saigon Kitchen and its’ sister restaurant, Rice Paddies Grill. Family recipes served family style over conversation – with you guessed it – family. Whether you are in the mood for something fresh, rich, simple or comforting like a warm bowl of Pho – the family recipes at Saigon Kitchen and Rice Paddies Grill will take your taste buds on a culinary journey to and from Vietnam.
Visit Saigon Kitchen
2412 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC 20007
Grace McNally is a Washington, D.C native musician, writer and foodie. She particularly enjoys using her writing and music as a voice to the voiceless.