Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

A new Little Saigon emerges as food, cultural scene evolves

by Leslie Berestein Rojas | Take Two®

Samy Nguyen is the executive chef at Tra House in Little Saigon in Garden Grove. Nguyen's dishes combine American and Vietnamese influences. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

At first glance, the mini-mall at the southeast corner of Brookhurst Street and McFadden Avenue in Westminster looks much dozens of other mini-malls in what's known as Little Saigon. Walk its length and you'll find a string of traditional businesses: A flower shop, a hair salon, foot-massage spa.

There are the time-honored mom-and-pop restaurants that line much of this stretch of Brookhurst. One place advertises Vietnamese hot pot; another tiny place sells food to go, its menu posted on the wall, all in Vietnamese.

Then from a building at the very end, wedged between a doctor’s office and a pharmacy, emanates the sound of loud hip-hop and whirring blenders: The Tebo Tebo Cafe, one of several newer businesses that caters to what you might call Little Saigon 2.0.

Forty years after the fall of Saigon in Vietnam created Orange County's Vietnamese diaspora, the pocket of northwest Orange County known as Little Saigon is changing. Children of immigrants have come of age and opened their own businesses, some distinctly American — but still Vietnamese.

At Tebo Tebo, a young waiter with Buddy Holly glasses and a spiky crew cut describes the menu as "Authentic Asian food with a twist." A traditional snack like the pork belly bun is rechristened as a "Poison Kiss."

An avocado and condensed milk dessert drink is referred to as a "Sticky Mess," a vanilla and strawberry smoothie as a "Sunburned White Boy." Milk tea with boba is served in glass containers reminiscent of old milk bottles.

The decor is decidedly funky, the crowd young. Jessica Vu, 25, sits with a friend while she waits for her lunch. She says she likes the vibe.

“We have a lot of options for traditional food," Vu said. "But it's a more modern atmosphere. I think that’s why a lot of people come here."
Little Saigon's food scene especially has become a mix of old and new, the traditional married with the modern. It’s something local businessman Tam Nguyen has seen take off in the last few years.  He grew up in Little Saigon.

“Now, it’s like, wow! When I look at it now, it’s run not only by those founders who were around 30-40 years ago, but by the second generation," Nguyen said. "There are so many cool restaurants and hip things and places and juice bars and tea places.”

Nguyen used to chair the local Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce. He says the last five years have given rise not just to new restaurants, but all kinds of businesses – print shops, fashion shops, you name it – run by children of immigrants.

Some inherited them, like he and his sister did - they run a local beauty college that their parents founded. Others are doing their own thing.

Samy Nguyen (no relation to Tam Nguyen) trained as a professional chef and went to work for the high-end Patina chain. He spent time living in Pasadena. But he recently returned to Garden Grove to head up the kitchen at Tra House, a new restaurant that bills its menu as “twisted Vietnamese cuisine.”

“It’s like a French technique, but it’s basically American food," said Nguyen, 39. "I grew up on American, food, meat and potatoes, and that is what I do well.”
Along with versions of Vietnamese street food and other dishes, are straightforward steaks and pork chops, on which Nguyen says he uses just a hint of Asian seasonings.
Now that he's back, Nguyen sees other second-generation Vietnamese Americans investing in Little Saigon.

“They are actually staying here, but they are building bigger homes. So they are keeping the money in the community," he said. "And they’re keeping it cleaner. The community was...dirtier and more infested before, there were more gangsters and what not. Now it’s more college kids and families.”
Quinnie Nguyen, who’s also not a relative, runs the restaurant along with her two siblings. They learned from her parents, who had their own restaurant in the early 2000s.

They started out with a super-hip tea bar, then expanded into a bigger space last year with the restaurant. The tea bar is still attached.

Nguyen describes a complicated-looking layered drink concocted by her younger brother: "It’s made from black tea and mixed with peach and lychee flavor. On top of that we put fresh strawberry, lychee seeds and lychee jelly. The drink itself is called a New Yorker.”
Perhaps, but it's distinctly Little Saigon. Nguyen is aware of her clientele.

“Foodies," she laughed. "We have Caucasians, we have non-Asians, we have Filipinos, we have Vietnamese."

And lots of locals, among them younger Vietnamese Americans who bring their kids and their parents. Chef Samy Nguyen says his family drops in sometimes.

“They love my cooking," he said, laughing. “My mom — not really, because she’s very old fashioned. But everyone else loves my food.”

But she needn’t wander far in search of classic Vietnamese food. Just a few steps to either side of the restaurant, Little Saigon continues to thrive — the old along with the new.

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