Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The First Vietnamese Restaurants in the U.S.

What were the first Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S.? In Massachusetts? In Boston's Chinatown?

Prior to 1975, there were likely less than 1,000 Vietnamese living in the U.S., scattered across the country. After the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, large amounts of Vietnamese began coming to the U.S., seeking refuge from the dire problems and threats in their country. The first Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. were established nearly fifteen years before the Fall of Saigon, though they proliferated greatly after the Fall.

Today, the Bánh mì sandwich and Phở are well known specialties of Vietnamese cuisine. However, there is still plenty of Vietnamese cuisine which is not as familiar to many people, and which should be. Fortunately, there are some newer Vietnamese restaurants which are trying to showcase these other aspects of their cuisine, offering delicious and more unique dishes which please the palate and soul. For example, two Vietnamese restaurants which do so opened in 2020, including Viet Citron in Burlington and Soall Viet Kitchen in Beverly.

In the beginning though, it was the Chả Giò, also referred to as the Imperial Roll, which seemed to be the most famous item of Vietnamese cuisine in the U.S.

The first Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S. appears to have been the Viet Nam, located at 1245 Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, which was established in 1961. In the New York Times, August 15, 1961, Craig Claiborne provided a review of the small spot, noting it is an "...unpretentious place with an interesting cuisine modestly priced." He also added, "It is reputedly the only Vietnamese restaurant in America.” Some of the dishes he mentioned included Four-Style Beef (four courses of beef prepared in different ways), Chả Giò (rice paper roll filled with & deep fried), Thit Nuong (beef smoked & grilled), Chao Tom (ground shrimp balls on a skewer), and Tom Rim (braised pork with shrimp). One of Claiborne's major points was that the cuisine was very inexpensive. 

Starting in the Columbia Daily Spectator, September 28, 1961, this newspaper ran a series of regular advertisements for the Viet Nam restaurants. Initially, the ad stated it was “The only Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S.A. serving renowned “Pho”—noodles; Cha Gio—rolls, first-prize winner at International Food Contest in Tokyo; Saigon-style “Bi Bun;” and Hanoi-style “Banh Cuon,” etc.” Prices were listed as Lunch from 95 cents and Dinner from $1.25-$3.75. In the Columbia Daily Spectator, January 9, 1962: the ad was shortened, primarily mentioning it was “The only Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S.A.” The last advertisement was in the March 1, 1963 issue, which could indicate the restaurant closed soon after that date. 

There was apparently another Vietnamese restaurant in New York City around this time, though I haven't been able to discern its name. It apparently was located in Hell’s Kitchen on West 44th near the southeast corner of 9th Avenue. All that I've been able to find is that by 1963 this restaurant closed, and became the home of the famed comedy club, The Improv.

The next Vietnamese restaurant to open in the U.S. appears to have been the Rama Oriental in 1966 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. As noted in The News & Observer (NC), December 16, 1966, the restaurant owners, Nguyen Minh Tri and Hgoan Van Dao, both taught the Vietnamese language at the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg. Working with all those soldiers who fought in Vietnam, Tri and Dao, figured that a Vietnamese restaurant might do well with the more than 12,000 soldiers passing through Fort Bragg. Initially, the restaurant consisted of only a single room but they eventually expanded to three rooms.

Their chef was from Saigon, and they hired two American and two Vietnamese waitresses. Their supplies were both imported and local. “Tri’s family ships rice paper, shrimp chips and tea from Vietnam. The bamboo shoots, shredded and served with beef, pork or chicken, comes from Hong Kong. Most vegetables are grown in the Fayetteville area.” The favorite appetizer on the menu was Chả Giò, stated to be, “It is a crunchy rice-paper roll, filled with meat, crabmeat, mushrooms and bean threads.” A couple other popular dishes included Mein Ga, a Vietnamese-style bean thread chicken soup, and a Vietnamese shishkabob, served with Vietnamese vermicelli salad.”

The Greensboro Daily News (NC), December 17, 1966, provided more information, mentioning that this might be the only Vietnamese restaurant in the country. It's possible that the Viet Nam in New York City might have closed by this time. This article also stated the Chả Giò was a favorite, adding that it was served with Nuoc Man sauce. It was also noted that “Tables in the restaurant are padded so elbows rest comfortably while soup is drunk Oriental-style.”For dessert,  "...there is lychees, long nhan in syrup or just ice cream and fortune cookies.” The restaurant was also said to be inexpensive,  at "North Carolina prices," including --$3.75 for a five-course dinner and $2-$2.50 for an entrée.

According to the Quad City Times (Iowa), October 7, 1971, Nguyen Minh Tri sold the Rama Oriental around 1969 to another language instructor, who also later sold it to someone else. Tri then opened another restaurant, The Saigon, which was a larger location and as it was within the city limits of Fayetteville, they could serve beer and wine. The Rama Oriental was situated in a dry area. The Saigon was noted as having an excellent Tom Rim (seasoned shrimp and pork).

A little more information was provided in the Charlotte Observer (NC), May 5, 1975. The Saigon opened in 1970, and in the downstairs, below the restaurant, was their Underground Bar, which apparently offered topless dancing, as the article noted, “...a jukebox blared rock and a topless dancer churned industriously for a solitary GI sipping beer at the bar.”: The article also said about The Saigon, “It’s a kind of bizarre souvenir, a museum where GIs homesick for Vietnam go.
The first Vietnamese restaurant to open in California was mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle, October 9, 1970. “The city’s first Vietnamese restaurant, Cordon Bleu, opened this wk. on Calif. Near Polk, and it’s run by Anthony Dang, who was born in Hanoi. The cuisine is North Vietnamese—” The San Francisco Examiner, January 3, 1971, expanded a little, claiming it was the only Vietnamese restaurant on the West Coast, and noting it served Imperial Rolls (pork, shrimp, eggs, & mushroom wrapped in rice paper and deep fried).

Their claim to being the only such restaurant on the West Coast wasn't fully accurate. The Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1970, stated that Le Relais (which means "relay station") was the first restaurant in Los Angeles to serve Vietnamese food. It was owned by Andre and Germaine Gevrard, and Andre was a Frenchman who spent time in Vietnamese with the French army. Germaine was the daughter of the former president of the University of Saigon, had studied at the Cordon Bleu in Saigon and Paris, and was the restaurant's chef. Though their main menu was French, they would prepare Vietnamese dinners with 24 hours notice.

The article reviewed some of the cuisine, both the French and Vietnamese. The writer stated that the most unusual dish of the evening was Chả Giò ("Crab, shrimp and chicken had been finely chopped, rolled in a clear sheet of rice dried in the sun, then deep fried until crispness."). A couple other dishes included Tom-Hum-Xao Chua-Ngot (Lobster cooked in milk, served with pea pods) and Gaxao-Gung (Chicken with ginger). The Vietnamese dinner cost $6.50.

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 1971, discussed Khanh Phoung Huynh, who immigrated from Saigon, and was now working as a waitress at the Cordon Bleu restaurant. The article made a few comments about Vietnamese cuisine, including, “Vietnamese food offers new tastes to San Francisco palates. Where the Chinese use soy sauce, the Vietnamese use fish sauce for marinating and dipping. The sauce is imported from Vietnam as is the rice paper used to wrap the egg rolls, which are otherwise similar to Chinese egg rolls.” It continued with a comment about the Cordon Blue, that, “Vietnamese eat their food with rice noodles, but since San Franciscans are used to eating Chinese food with rice, the restaurant makes that one compromise in its otherwise traditional meals."

The Cordon Bleu must have been a great success, at least according to an advertisement in the San Francisco Examiner, September 24, 1971. It read, “Now being Translated into English: How to open 3 Vietnamese Restaurants in S.F. within a year, with a thousand dollars, by A. Dan-Tran, founder of the three “CORDON BLEU” on California, Columbus, Broadway. (a 4th is coming)." A minimal investment leading to three restaurants, with a fourth on the way? Impressive. However, this claim would be later contradicted.

There was a brief note in the Next Quad City Times (Iowa), October 7, 1971, that San Francisco had at least 3 Vietnamese restaurants (which might all be Cordon Bleu locations), Annapolis had 1 Vietnamese restaurant, and there were none in New York City (which indicates the Viet Nam was no longer in existence and hadn't been replaced).

Curiously, the San Francisco Examiner, June 9, 1972, published an ad for the Cordon Bleu, “now at 1574 California,” noting that a second location would open on June 12 at 2227 Polk Street. This was confirmed by the San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 1972: Had the prior locations of Cordon Bleu, on Columbus and Broadway, closed? It appears so based on these new advertisements. 

However, owner Anthony Dang-Tran opened another Vietnamese restaturant. The Santa Maria Times (CA), August 4, 1972, noted that Dang-Tran had opened the Vietnam-France restaurant at Divisadero and Pine. The San Francisco Examiner, April 27, 1973, published an ad for this restaurant, noting they served North and South Vietnamese delicacies as well as French specialties.

Another new Vietnamese restaurant. The San Francisco Chronicle, April 1, 1973, had a brief ad for the Que Huong, located at 438 Eddy Street, and with the caption, “Tranquil—Ethnic—Nourishing."

Vietnamese cuisine comes to Washington, D.C. The Evening Star (D.C.), April 15, 1973, first discussed Vietnamese cuisine in general, noting, “Vietnamese food comes with good credentials. John F. Kennedy hired a Vietnamese chef to run the White House kitchen. Frenchmen in Paris support dozens of Vietnamese restaurants (started after their war in Vietnam), and this continent’s restaurant mecca, Montreal, has for several years had two. As an aside, it doesn't actually appear that JFK hired a Vietnamese chef. During his time in the White House, the chef was René Verdon, a French-born American chef. There were some rumors that JFK tried to hire a Vietnamese chef in London, but the rumor appears to have been untrue.

The article continued, "Vietnamese food is very good." and also noted, “The Vietnamese are the only Southeast Asian people who use chopsticks.” There was then a description of the elements of its cuisine, from nuoc mam to their spices. And of course, Chả Giò received a mention, which "combines meat, seafood, noodles and vegetables in a paper-thin rice dough like Middle-Eastern phyllo."

It was then noted the burgeoning trend of Vietnamese restaurants. “Three years ago the trend began with the opening of the tiny Cordon Bleu in that culinary bellwether city, San Francisco. The following month the East Coast for the Oriental Garden in Annapolis. Each year has seen more Vietnamese restaurants opening in California. Now one has opened in the District.

This new restaurant in D.C. was Haichiem, located at 1509 16th St, NW in the Christian Inn. It was initially only open for lunch, though planned to open in the near future for dinner with a larger menu, created by the cook Miss Chac. The lunch menu wasn't fully Vietnamese, as though they offered Chả Giò, you also would find hamburgers.

The newspaper claimed that “Easily the best Vietnamese restaurant in the country is the Oriental Garden (Forest Plaza Shopping Center, Annapolis) which mixes in Chinese cuisine." Owned by Mr. Loc, some of their dishes included Dau Dong Phuong (fritters of rice flour & pork), Bo Nuong Xa (beef skewers), Pho Xao (beef with noodles), and Chien Chua Ngot (fried shrimp balls). And if given several days notice, you can order a special, nine-courseVietnamese feast, which costs $12, but is said to be well worth the price.

Washington had their first Vietnamese restaurant. The Seattle Daily Times (WA), April 27, 1973, presented an ad for  the Viet Nam Dynasty,The Northwest’s Only Vietnamese Restaurant,” located at 914 East Pike, and which served lunch and dinner.

Another Vietnamese restaurant came to San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle, December 15, 1973, briefly mentioned that the Thanh Long Vietnamese restaurant served Cua Rang Mouoi, roast crab ala Green Dragon. The San Francisco Chronicle, February 2, 1974, added that this dish consisted of a live whole crab that was baked and then roasted with butter and spice.

And another new spot. The San Francisco Chronicle, February 9, 1974, mentioned the new Gargantua restaurant in the California Hotel, where you could get a combination plate of Imperial roll, pork shishkebab, rice and salad for $2.70. The San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 1974, also mentioned their Five-Spice Broiled Chicken, with rice and bean sprout salad, for $3.25.

Vietnamese restaurants kept appearing across the country. The Oregonian, July 7, 1974, wrote about a new spot, Tu-Do on SW Powell, which was a small and authentic Vietnamese restaurant run by a young Vietnamese couple. Although the restaurant served American cuisine for lunch, they served "full course dinners at night in the Vietnamese manner. 

A couple years later, the Oregonian, January 16, 1976, provided more information about this restaurant. The Tu Do, probably the only Vietnamese restaurant in Portland, was operated by Tinh Truong Ngoc and his wife Oanh (both from Saigon), and it specialized in multicourse dinners. The restaurant's name is pronounced “Dug zaw” and means “freedom” in Vietnamese. Some of the menu items included: Ga Za (lemon grass chicken), Tom Sot So (shrimp with clam sauce), Ga Thao Qua (cardamom chicken), Heo Dong Cue (country pork), and Chuoi Chien (bananan fritters). probably only Vietnamese restaurant in Portland 

The San Diego Union, October 13, 1974, stated that Nguyen Huu Dan owned the green Bamboo, a Vietnamese restaurant at 904 E. Washington Avenue. The San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 1975, briefly mentioned the Cherry Flower, a Vietnamese restaurant on Columbus Avenue.

It was during this time period that a significant number of Vietnamese refugees began entering the U.S. The Evening Star (D.C.), June 15, 1975, discussed their plight, and stated, “The most promising Vietnamese business is the Vietnamese restaurant business. Prototypes of Vietnamese restaurants, complete with architecture, dining room decoration, menu, prices, should be set up and if one works, it can be duplicated in other localities.” Vietnamese restaurants had been popular in the U.S. for over ten years, although there might have only been a dozen or so around the country at this point. Certainly plenty of room for new Vietnamese restaurants to start up all over the country.

More Vietnamese restaurants in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1973, mentioned that the Le Relais, which had opened in 1970, was closed. A new Vietnamese spot had now opened, Vietnam in Hollywood, which was owned by Nguyen Van Ung and Mme. Luong Thi Sinh. They also have a restaurant in San Francisco. Their chef is Mme. Lena Nguyen and the restaurant serves a special dinner called Seven Ways with Beef, and it must be ordered two days in advance for at least four people. The article describes the various dishes in detail. It also noted that, "The Vietnamese feel that soup and salad served at the end of a meal are an aid to digestion.

The State Journal Register (CA), August 17, 1975, briefly noted that there was only one Vietnamese restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, which served Imperial Rolls, North Vietnamese noodle soup, and steamed mixed rolls. Strangely, the name of the restaurant wasn't provided though it appears they are referring to the Vietnam. The Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1976,  reported that the Vietnam had moved and changed its name, becoming Vietnam Pearl at 1461 S. La Cienega. 

More details were provided in the Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1977, which noted the move was to a large space. There was a brief review of some of the available dishes, such as Tom Lui Minong, a broiled shrimp and pork brochette, and Ginger Beef, with mushrooms, ground peanuts, carrots, cabbage, and vinegar. 

In follow-up, the Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1979, provide more details of Vietnamese cuisine, as well as more on Vietnam Pearl, such as mentioning Nguyen Huy Loc, the owner of the restaurant. The original Vietnam restaurant opened in 1973 on Hollywood Boulevard, becoming Vietnam Pearl in 1976.  The article also mentioned a bit of Vietnamese lore, that "The ability to make a proper chả giò is a qualification for a proper bride,..."

A couple other Vietnamese restaurants in Los Angeles were mentioned in that same article. Than Phong (sometimes known as Mekong) was located at 5051 Hollywood Boulevard. It was a tiny, new spot, owned and operated by Huang Dung (the chef)and his wife An Nguyen (the hostess). The other place was the Saigon Flavor, at 1044 South Fairfax, which is the largest of the three restaurants. 

The Cordon Bleu was still in existence and the San Francisco Chronicle, November 15, 1975, noted that the original owners were now back. There was no indication though how many locations of the Cordon Bleu were still around. The San Francisco Chronicle, November 22, 1975, then noted that the Aux Delices Vietnamese restaurant had just opened at Potrero and 22nd Street, serving complete dinners for $2.60-$4.00.

A new Vietnamese restaurant opened in Washington, D.C., with a name that didn't evoke the nature of the spot. The Evening Star (D.C.), December 11, 1975, discussed the Top O’ Georgetown restaurant,  located just off the lobby of the Wellington Apaicious. It was owned by Mrs. Thu Linh, who had been a restaurateur and grade school principal in Saigon, and came to the U.S. in April. The menu is divided into French and Vietnamese dishes, and there are two different chefs. Chef Eugene Jones creates the French entrees while Linh’s sister, Chef Nyguyen (Nancy) Ngan, creates the Vietnamese ones.

This wasn't an inexpensive place, and was considered pricey, with entrees costing $5.95-$9.50. They served dishes including Chả Giò,; Pho Bo (beef soup supreme), Flower of Corn Soup (“an ambrosial corn ‘chowder’ laced with lobster and lump crab"), Kim Tien Ke (a chicken dish), and Thit Kho Nuoc Dua (pork dish with tiny amounts of sugar and coconut milk).

The San Antonio Light (TX), April 9, 1976, had an advertisement for Lien’s San Antonio Café, the only Vietnamese restaurant in San Antonio, located at 143 E. Houston at the River. Interestingly, besides food, they also sold ceramics, porcelin, buffies, vases, dolls, coins, and more.

The first Vietnamese restaurant in the greater Boston area. The Berkshire Eagle (MA), April 14, 1976, printed that Ton That An, the former South Vietnamese ambassador to Burma, opened Rendezvous on Sunday, April 11, in Cambridge. This was said to be the first Vietnamese owned restaurant in the Boston area. 

The Boston Herald, May 27, 1977, presented an ad for Rendezvous, located at 24 Holyoke Street, Harvard Square, The ad mentioned their “Famous Vietnamese Dishes” and that it was “Very cozy, relaxing atmosphere. Excellent choice of imported wines.” The restaurant was also only open for dinner. The last advertisement was this restaurant appeared in January 1982, which might mean it closed around this time. 

The Chicago Daily News, April 26, 1976, noted that the first Vietnamese restaurant had just opened in  Chicago. Lan's Vietnam, at 512 S. Wabash, was managed by Lan (who was Vietnamese) and Bill Pilot  (who served in Vietnam), of Maywood. They planned to host a series of Vietnamese singers at the restaurant.

The Evening Star (D.C.), July 11, 1976, discussed that at the time of the Fall of Saigon, there were only two Vietnamese restaurants in the Washington area. Since then though, there are at least 10 such restaurant, with more to come. The article stated, “…Vietnamese food—as a cuisine—is of a high order.” It then continued, “Above all, it is marvelously refined, due in part, perhaps, to 100 years of on-the-spot French influence. It is a finely honed, even, delicate style unmatched in many countries.” In addition, it was noted, “...the seasonings, which run to garlic, ginger, lemon, clove and anise, are never overemployed. They never offend; they tempt, they fascinate, they give rise to guessing games.

It was then reported that two more Vietnamese restaurants had recently opened, the Vietnamese-Georgetown Restaurant and the Viet Huong Café, which were actually located next to each other. ; The V-G restaurant wasn't actually new, as it had moved from another location, and was owned by An Duong Quang, a chemical engineer who came to the U.S. from France, and Nguyen Hy Quang, a native of Hue. The Café  was owned by the Hoang Minh family, some who had fled Saigon just before the fall.

The first Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans was forthcoming. The Times-Picayune (LA), July 11, 1976, reported that Hong-Lan would soon open. The Evening Star (D.C.), June 5, 1977, reported that the Saigon Inn, a Vietnamese restaurant had opened in Fairfax County, Virginia. The owner was Bui Van Anh, the former South Vietnam ambassador to Switzerland.

More news about the Cordon Bleu. The San Francisco Examiner, July 1, 1977, briefly mentioned that the Nine Spice Roast Chicken, at Cordon Bleu, had received 4 stars from restaurant critics. The San Francisco Chronicle, July 2, 1977, mentioned that the Exceutive Chef at Cordon Blue was Ms. Huong Phan, who once owned the Myvan restaurant in Saigon. It was noted that her Vietnamese-style beef stew sold very well. It was also mentioned in the San Francisco Examiner, July 22, 1977, that the owner of the Cordon Bleu was Hien Phan, who speaks English, French, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese. It is unclear whether Hien and Huong were related or not.

More new Vietnamese restaurants. The San Antonio Light, July 17, 1977, stated that a small Vietnamese restaurant, at 3244 Broadway, had been in business for about seven months. It was owned by Mrs. Cuc Nguyen Eisenhauer, who was from Vietnam and had 12 children, a couple of her sons helping her out at the restaurant. The Seattle Daily Times, September 21, 1977, had an ad for the Saigon, located in the Soames Dunn Buildin, which mentioned, “Broiled Ginger Chicken—a house specialty. Kentucky Fried was never like this!

The San Francisco Chronicle, November 21, 1977, discussed the Saigon Vietnamese restaurant on Geary, noting its Ho Chi Minh Steak was a featured dish, The restaurant was a favorite hangout of  the famed writer Fritz Leiber, who lived nearby.

Besides restaurants, there were a few Vietnamese night clubs starting to appear across the country. The State Times Advocate (LA), November 10, 1978, reported that Huang Nam was the owner-manager of Vietnam Bistro; an "elegant Saigon-style supper club," also referred to as a night club, located in in Arlington, Virginia. It was said to be the only Vietnamese nightclub in the Eastern U.S. and that the only other Vietnamese nightclubs were in Houston, Los Angeles and San Jose, cities with the largest Vietnamese communities.

The Evening Star (D.C.), December 31, 1978, reported on a new Vietnamese restaurant, Germaine’s, which was sad to be a dressy place, and not an inexpensive little spot. It was also noted that the restaurant was“an effort on the part of management to show how superbly light and elegant Vietnamese cuisine—with all of its French influence—can be.”

A new restaurant from Anthony Dang-Tran, who started the original Cordon Bleu. The San Francisco Examiner, May 4, 1979, mentioned the opening of Le Bigamist, new Vietnamese/Laotian restaurant. The article gave a small biography of Dang-Tran, who was now 45 years old and had left Vietnam in 1948, spending a number of years on France before coming to the U.S. Dang-Tran told the writer that when he opened his first Vietnamese restaurants, “In those days, he says, he was a ‘playboy who liked to travel.’ After a restaurant was well launched, he’d sell it and take off.

In 1976, Dang-Tran got married to Diem, the sister of a brother-in-law, and within the next three years, they had four little girls. Le Bigamist is named after the pet bull on the family's farm in Vietnam. The chef Kin was once the cook for President Phouma of Laos. The article also stated that “Dang-tran, who must be regard as the local father of Vietnamese cuisine.

One of my favorite restaurant names. The San Francisco Chronicle, July 14, 1979, mentioned that Bo Bay Mon, Seven Jewel Beef, was a specialty of Golden Turtle, a Vietnamese restaurant on 5th Avenue near Clement. The Evening Star (D.C.), July 19, 1979, noted that the , in Arlington; a review; in which opened three years ago was one of the finest restaurants in the area.

Maybe the second or third Vietnamese restaurant in Massachusetts, the Springfield Union, October 7, 1979, briefly noted the new Orient Express in West Stockbridge. Unfortunately,, the Springfield Union, May 26, 1980, reported that the Board of Health obtained a Superior Court restraining order which resulted in a temporary suspension of the Orient Express. It was alleged that Trai Thi Duong, the restaurant owner, was allegedly operating a sit-down restaurant but only had a permit for a takeout restaurant. In addition, the restaurant only had a single bathroom although two were legally required.

Probably the first Vietnamese restaurant in Boston was mentioned in the Boston Globe, October 18, 1979, and it was opened by Ton-That-An, who had previously opened Rendezvous in Cambridge. The restaurant was named Hen Ho (Vietnamese for “rendezvous”) and it was located in the Back Bay, at 266 Newbury Street. The article mentioned that much of the cooking was very traditional and hands-on, such as marinating shaved veggies for three days to make traditional Vietnamese pickles. 

The Evansville Courier and Press (IN), November 13, 1979, reported that four partners had opened the Saigon, the first authentic Vietnamese restaurant in the Tri-State area.  The restaurant was very small with limited seating.

The Cordon Bleu back in the news. The San Francisco Examiner, August 31, 1980, published that the Cordon Bleu had a new location at 771 O’Farrell. The article also mentioned that San Francisco might have more Vietnamese restaurants than any other U.S. city.  “Among the more commodious are the Saigon, on Geary, with its extensive menu of festive Vietnamese dishes, and the Golden Turtle on Fifth Avenue near Clement…It excels in pungently marinated grilled meats.” The article also mentioned two small places,  the old Cordon Bleu on California (which was still small and cheap), and Mai’s, a a storefront restaurant on Clement at Fifth Avenue, which had opened "a spiffier branch "at Clement near 24th.

Another Vietnamese spot in Boston. The Boston Globe, October 5, 1982, had a brief ad for the Viet-Nam Restaurant, located at 38 Boylston Street. As for Chinatown, the Boston Globe, October 9, 1988, reported that the Viet Restaurant was one of the city’s first Vietnamese restaurants. The owners,  Muoi Phan and his wife Puyet Nguyen, were teachers before the fall of Saigon. Phan claimed that they were the first Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown (though no date was provided). The restaurant included Chinese dishes on their menu as Phan and was worried Americans would be unfamiliar with the Vietnamese cuisine.

As I mentioned previously, New York City had the first Vietnamese restaurant in the country, but by 1971, there were none. The Daily News (NY), July 14, 1982, noted that in 1975 there hadn't been any Vietnamese restaurants in Manhattan. However, over the course of the last seven months, four such spots had opened, and there had been one other in existence for longer than seven months. The new restaurants included the Paris Saigon Restaurant at 252 W. 43rd St, which opened in December 1981, Saigon at 60 Mulberry Street, Viet Huong at 64 East Broadway, and Vietnamese Restaurant at 11 Doyers. Those last three were all located in Chinatown. The oldest Vietnamese restaurant in New York City was Suzanne, at 313 E. 46th Street, which opened in November 1980.

In the 1980s and beyond, many more Vietnamese restaurants began to open in every part of the U.S. And it was during the 1980s that the Bánh mì started to become popular, though in the Boston area it seemed to be first known as the "Saigon Sub" around 1984. Phở was around from the beginning, since the first Vietnamese restaurant opened in New York City in 1961, and its popularity has only grown. 

We can see that the first Vietnamese restaurants opened in the early 1960s, when there was only a small amount of Vietnamese living in the U.S. In general, the cuisine was thought to be inexpensive and delicious, though there were a few attempts to elevate the cuisine, to a pricier level. In general, Vietnamese cuisine seemed to have been well received and had very little negative publicity, unlike when Chinese restaurants started in the 19th century.  

Please note that this extensive article, of about 5000 words, is still a work in progress as there is definitely more research warranted. I especially want to find more information about the first Vietnamese restaurants in Boston's Chinatown. When I do update this article, I will be sure to let everyone know.

What are some of your favorite Vietnamese restaurants?


Adam Gaffin said...

Another early Boston Vietnamese place was Vietnam Spring Roll, which shared space with Arcand Spring (which serviced auto springs) on Brighton Avenue in Union Square in Allston. I'm pretty sure it was there in the mid-1980s, back when my girlfriend and I still lived nearby in Brighton and would go three to fill up on, well, spring rolls.

TheCulturedChristian said...

Nam's Red Door, opened 1978 conveniently across the street from Fort McArthur military base in San Pedro, California (Los Angeles Harbor/ Port of Los Angeles). It is still open. https://www.presstelegram.com/2007/02/20/022007-nams-red-door-in-san-pedro/

Ngan said...

I just read your article and enjoyed and appreciate your writing about my 2 restaurants in Washington, DC. But I have to mention that I started HaiChiEm while working as a nurse at NIH as their was no Vietnamese food in Washington, DC at the time. I started as a dare from my friends who I had previously worked with at the State Department. I also started it to help my sister-in-law, Chi Chac, who just lost her job teaching Vietnamese to State Department personnel on their way to Vietnam. I read it in the Washington Post that there was a restaurant on 16th Street, 3 blocks from the White House, for rent. I spoke with the youth pastor and he said "he hated to take my money because the previous restaurant owner made hamburgers and couldn't survive". After I became pretty successful I had the French Ambassador's wife coming everyday to eat egg rolls and the Vietnamese Embassy bringing all their guests for Vietnamese food. The youth minister was so proud of me that he brought all his guests over to meet me as if I were his daughter. I even fed a homeless man Vietnamese food every day when he came in. My second restaurant was Top Of Georgetown in the Wellington Hotel because my brother, Linh (that the Time Magazine called the richest man in Saigon) think that the HaiChiEm is not fancy enough. After working as a nurse plus running the restaurant became too much, I allowed my employees to take over. She was lucky since her family came after the fall of Saigon and was able to run it. They had it for years and had a restaurant called Vietnam Georgetown which lasted many many years. Thank you again for such a wonderful article and for bringing back memories from decades ago. Nancy Ngan Schwankhaus

Tim said...

I found this looking for a recipe for a dish we used to get at Vietnam-France in San Francisco. We moved in a few doors down, back in 1978. Fantastic memories, didn't realize that Vietnam-France was one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in the City.