Vietnamese restaurants achieve fast food success


HOUSTON – The Hughie’s on West 18th Street is one of many Vietnamese American restaurants around this town. But it may have more in common with a dairy queen.

To begin with, it was a Dairy Queen. The sign on the front still has the eye-shaped outline of the ice cream chain’s logo. On the menu, alongside banh mi and shaken beef, are thick-crusted, buttermilk-brined chicken tenderloins, a Dairy Queen standard.

The most striking similarity, however, is the restaurant’s drive-thru window, which opened in March 2020 in response to coronavirus lockdowns.

Paul Pham, owner of this Hughie’s and another a few miles away, hopes that one day his restaurant will be as ubiquitous as Dairy Queen. Next year it will open a third location and plans to expand into Texas and possibly beyond.

In his vision, drive-thru — a classic American innovation that harnessed the country’s fast-food industry to car culture — is also a potential vehicle for making Vietnamese cuisine the next cuisine to join that success story. He thinks Americans’ growing familiarity with Vietnamese cuisine makes it the perfect food for the next generation of drive-thru restaurants.

In recent years, several Vietnamese restaurants with the same idea have opened in Houston, including Yes Banh Mi, The bustle of Saigon and Kim’s Pho & Grill. Outside of Texas, there are Simply Vietnam in Santa Rosa, California; Mi-Sant Banh Mi Co. in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota; and For me Vietnamese submarine in Calgary, Alberta.

All of these restaurants have drive-thrus and owners trying to attract a wider fan base for Vietnamese cuisine by marrying its flavors with American convenience.

“We are going to evolve into more than one Chick-fil-A kind of concept,” said Mr. Pham, who was born and raised in Houston, where about 150,000 Vietnamese Americans, one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the USA. “They are the godfather of this company, right?”

For him, that also means using technology to streamline customer service, open in diversely populated neighborhoods and close on Sundays, as Chick-fil-A does — practices, he said, that are less common in old Vietnamese restaurants in Houston.

“Our concept wouldn’t survive in an old-school Asian environment,” he said. His family opened the first Hughie’s in 2013.

Americans who identify their origin as Vietnamese were roughly 2.1 million in the 2020 census. Many North American cities, including philadelphia cream, Washington and San Jose, California., are experiencing a wave of new Vietnamese restaurants.

But by embracing drive-thru and other fast-food industry practices, restaurateurs hope to reach audiences beyond their fellow Vietnamese Americans.

“We’re trying to sit at the level of Panda Express,” said Cassie Ghaffar, owner of Saigon Hustle, which she opened last February in Houston’s Oak Forest neighborhood with her business partner, Sandy Nguyen.

Saigon Hustle — which serves banh mi, bun (vermicelli bowls) and com (rice bowls) — looks like a 1950s American drive-in, with a large awning decorated with images of dragon fruit and a area where cars can stop. Saigon Hustle has only one location, but its founders said it was on track to generate $1.8 million in revenue this year. They plan to expand nationwide within two to three years.

For many non-Vietnamese diners, a trip to Chinatown for Vietnamese cuisine can be a challenge, as the menu may not be in English, while more upscale Vietnamese fusion restaurants can seem prohibitively expensive, Ms. Ghaffar, 40 years old.

“The drive-thru is less intimidating,” she said. “It gives more people the opportunity to try Vietnamese cuisine.”

The drive-thru, which appeared in the middle of the 20th century and flourished in the 1970s, has primarily been a conduit for foods like burgers and fries. Fast-food chains selling American Mexican food, such as Taco Bell and Taco Cabana, have also widely adopted it.

Drive-thru found new life at the start of the pandemic, when many restaurants adopted ways to limit person-to-person contact.

Kenny To and Hien Nguyen opened To Me Vietnamese Sub in October 2020 in Calgary. But their drive was inspired less by the pandemic than by the Canadian fast food chain Tim Hortons.

“Every morning I have to get coffee at the Tim Hortons drive-thru. It is very convenient for me, for my daily life,” said Mr. To, 60. “I was like, why not have the Vietnamese submarine driven?

Vietnamese dishes like banh mi and spring rolls are portable and easy to pack, Mr. To said, making them well suited to a drive-thru format. But because he goes to great lengths with his banh mi, cooking every part to order and even baking the bread, it’s harder to make them as quickly as other fast food dishes like burgers and fries. .

“You have to cook the sub, and then with the meat, you have to cook it well,” he said. Sometimes customers have to wait up to 30 minutes.

Mr Pham, of Hughie’s, said a major obstacle to national expansion for a restaurant like his is the limited availability of certain ingredients. A condiment like Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce, which it uses in marinades, can be hard to find in areas without large Asian American populations.

But at least one Vietnamese fast food restaurant has already figured out how to expand nationwide: Lee’s sandwiches, launched in San José in 1983 by Ba Le and Hanh Nguyen. Today, the chain has 62 locations in eight states, including California, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas. Many have drive-through services.

The expansion of the restaurant, which began in 2001, came with limitations. “At the time, we were a little more cautious,” said Jimmy Le, vice president of Lee’s and grandson of the founders. The company only chose areas with large Vietnamese American populations.

Even though Lee’s has since opened restaurants in areas with more multicultural populations, half of its locations are still in predominantly Asian American neighborhoods, said Le, 40.

He said he was happy to see all the new Vietnamese drive-ins. But he’s not trying to turn Lee’s into an American fast-food chain. “We don’t want to change too much, or change at all,” he said. “People know Lee’s Sandwiches, and they know what they’re going to get.”

It’s hard for Mai Nguyen, 58, another longtime Vietnamese American restaurateur, to feel excited about these new restaurants. She ran the beloved Vietnamese restaurant But, in Houston, since 1990; his parents opened the place in 1978.

“What I see is the current generation, they kind of make the restaurant look very nice and modern,” she said. “But I don’t see the food is authentic.”

Yet authenticity has another meaning for these restaurateurs, most of whom grew up outside Vietnam.

In Mi-Sant, a Minneapolis suburb, that means serving not just traditional banh mi, but also croissants — a specialty of owner Quoc Le, 37, whose father trained as a pastry chef in France. – in a drive-in of an old KFC.

“It’s part of our identity,” said Linh Nguyen, another owner, along with her three sisters and brother. “Growing up, seeing a drive-thru was not something out of the ordinary for us.”

She wants Mi-Sant, which opened in 2018 and has another location in the area, to emulate high-end, casual eateries like Shake Shack. But she acknowledged that reaching a wider audience may have alienated her Vietnamese customers.

“I didn’t have all the Vietnamese-speaking employees who could talk to them,” she said. “There were no Vietnamese words on the menu, so they couldn’t read it, and our price is much higher” than many long-running Vietnamese restaurants in the area.

And some diners still aren’t used to ordering a banh mi through a drive-thru. “We get people who just come in and order a burger and a taco, and it’s really funny,” said Ms Nguyen, 33. “I have to be like, ‘We don’t do that here.'”

For Mr. Pham, modeling Hughie’s after American fast food restaurants is not just a way to attract more types of customers, but a reflection of his upbringing in Houston.

“The menu, and the combination of these two different kinds of worlds, that’s pretty much me,” he said.

To do otherwise, he added, would seem inauthentic.


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