Celebrating Lunar New Year with a feast at a Vietnamese restaurant? These days we take for granted how many such noodle houses, coffee bars and fine dining rooms there are in Southern California. But we don’t often stop to think about pioneers like Helene “Mama” An who brought this cuisine from her homeland to our state.
Her family owns the House of An restaurant group, which started in Northern California and now has Crustacean restaurants in San Francisco and Beverly Hills,Tiato in Santa Monica and AnQi in Costa Mesa. An is still charting new territory: She recently opened Da Lat Rose, a restaurant within Crustacean, where Executive Chef Tony Nguyen helps tell her story in cuisine.
An has led a fascinating life. The daughter of a Mandarin scholar, she lived outside Hanoi. But her family fled Vietnam in 1975 after Saigon fell and she moved with them into a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. An quickly learned English, studied diligently and became a CPA within a year.
But accounting was just her day job. She still worked every night at the deli that became Thanh Long restaurant, which is still operating in the Sunset district. An developed recipes in a “secret kitchen” to add to Thanh Long’s menu and that was the start of her foodie empire which comes full circle with Da Lat Rose.
“It’s a gastro biography,” said Nguyen, who has worked at House of An restaurants, including AnQi in Costa Mesa, for 7 years. “We have about 14 courses and we talk a little bit about Mama’s life and how she ended up where she is.”
The evening is very experiential. Guests come in through a separate entrance and they are entertained. “My first job ever, I was a magician, and I always have loved kind of being a showman,” Nguyen said. “So we try to put on a show as well and give you a couple of surprises throughout the meal.”
For Lunar New Year Nguyen will offer a special Heaven and Earth Prosperity menu. “I always do something from the sky, from the sea, and from the land for good fortune. We’ve always try to tie in those elements.”
Fish selections will include a whole Dover sole with ginger truffle nage and a flashy Red Tile Fish preparation. “This is one of the only fish that you can eat the scales. We’re going to crisp up the scales, like little potato chips, by pouring hot oil over it right in front of you.”
From the sky, Nguyen said he would never serve duck, which is considered bad luck. Instead he will opt for quail, Peking style. “They’re petite quails from Nevada and I might do a red rice risotto with it.”
He will also serve a sticky rice dish of some kind, which represents family togetherness, and dumplings which resemble coins and represent prosperity.
And of course there will be noodles, which symbolize longevity. In the case of the An family it’s a perfect fit because Mama’s garlic noodle recipe has always been her restaurants’ signature dish.
“At AnQi during the holidays, we get busy,” Nguyen said. “If we run out of noodles, even if it’s just for an hour or two, it’s complete chaos.”