Not your grandmother's Little Saigon: Entrepreneurs expand enclave's horizons

The fragrance from racks of pork ribs fills the air when the door to the newest restaurant in Little Saigon bursts open. Two guys, one from Texas, the other a local, peeked in, inhaling.

"Hey, it's so cool that they set up a pit," says Eric Hart, a marketing associate from Houston.

"Yeah, this place is gonna be a hit. Ten, 15 years ago, it wouldn't even have a chance. But here, it's up and running on rubs and hickory," adds John Bui, a graphics artist who grew up in Anaheim.

Hart and Bui said they couldn't believe their eyes — or noses — when friends led them to The Smoking Ribs, where chef-owner Kenny Tran had set up shop.

Instead of traditional Vietnamese fare, his menu teems with brisket, tenderloin tomahawk steak and a 14-ounce Porterhouse pork chop.

"This area is ready for a different rhythm. There's been a transformation and we're right in the thick of it," Tran says.

With more than 6,000 businesses, the sleepy stretch of Westminster that sprang to life as a Vietnamese American haven in 1988 is thriving with new cuisine, amenities and hot spots. They are replacing mom-and-pop eateries that never accepted credit cards or boasted diaper changing stations.

What began as an enclave for refugees resettling in Orange County — the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam — has given way to a larger, more diverse district. It has spread into Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and Santa Ana and draws visitors of all Asian backgrounds, along with increasing numbers of whites and Latinos.

In the beginning, community leaders say, merchants focused on re-creating the familiar and catering almost exclusively to the refugees. Today's entrepreneurs want to expand the enclave's horizons and make the area more welcoming to people of other cultures. Euro-style fashions now grace store windows next to traditional fabric stalls. Lawyers advertise no-fault divorces. Tutors market Ivy League dreams. Adding to the mix is free Wi-Fi and cultural tours, promoted by a younger generation of leaders.

"It's not your grandmother's Little Saigon," says Tam Nguyen, who, with his sister, runs a business started by his parents. Once called Tam's Beauty School, in the Vietnamese tradition of using an owner's first name in a business, it has been redubbed Advance Beauty College. There, the Nguyen siblings mingle with students from India, Mexico, Ecuador and Cambodia.

"You have to hang out to see how the community has exploded," says Gia Ly, chairwoman of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce. At 36, she is the youngest person to hold the title — and the first woman. She fields plenty of requests for business connections from Asian Americans and others who cite trade and the influence of the Pacific Rim as reasons for wanting to know more about Little Saigon — four decades after the refugees fled their homeland at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

"It's getting more bilingual," she added, "and it's not only an international destination for tourists — it's attractive to younger Vietnamese who are coming back to take charge because they're looking for a familiar environment, a comfortable place to raise their families."

Tim Hoang of Huntington Beach said he did not like coming to Little Saigon with his parents when he was growing up in the 1980s.

"It was an obligation — we could not choose like you choose to go to Disneyland," he said.

Things are different for his two children, who with their cousins, "actually ask to be taken to Little Saigon, where you can hear four or five languages spoken inside one business, and where we had a meal while listening to rap on the radio. Imagine that — rap."

Karen Contreras, who is studying to be an esthetician at Nguyen's beauty school, says she shops in Vietnamese grocery stores where produce signs have English translations and where she can find her favorite — garlic sprouts.

"I tell my friends, 'What are you waiting for?' " the El Salvador native says. "If you are curious about the culture, start here. It's not a maze. There are temptations to discover."

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 08, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Little Saigon takes on a new flavor - Entrepreneurs are expanding the Vietnamese enclave's horizons with diverse cuisine and amenities." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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