The San Francisco Chronicle crowned her “the mother of fusion cuisine.” But Helene An never set out to create a whole new category of food. It was an evolution, and initially a matter of survival.
When Saigon fell in 1975, Helene and Danny An fled Vietnam with three young daughters, leaving behind their fortunes. Helene had been born into aristocracy. Danny’s father was a wealthy industrialist. Both grew up eating grand meals.
Warp speed from Vietnam to their arrival in San Francisco with their daughters and Danny’s parents. They were broke, but owned an Italian deli that Danny’s mom, Diana, had bought on a whim two years earlier.
Italian was the one food the family didn’t know much about, so egg rolls were added to the menu. One day, Helene told diners that if they wanted spaghetti, they should try her version. “If you don’t like it, you don’t pay,” she told them. “An’s Famous Garlic Noodles” were born.
That deli morphed into San Francisco’s first Vietnamese restaurant. When Helene opened San Francisco’s upscale Crustacean in 1991, a critic announced the official arrival of Asian fusion.
Now the multimillion-dollar “House of An” has six restaurants, including AnQi at South Coast Plaza. Helene’s garlic noodles are famous even among the famous: Fans include Magic Johnson, Warren Beatty, Heidi Klum, Harrison Ford and Lady Gaga.
Helene, now 72, oversees Crustacean in Beverly Hills but drives to AnQi every Tuesday to roast dungeness crabs; her daughters complete the House of An. Jacqueline recently published the family cookbook/memoir, “An: To Eat.” Elizabeth, the company’s CEO who oversees AnQi, lives in Corona del Mar. Now a third-generation, Elizabeth’s daughter and son, has joined the family business.
Says Elizabeth: “Mom always said, ‘You rise with humility, and you fall with dignity, and you never forget where you came from.’”