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Little Saigon’s restaurateurs looking up-market

Times Staff Writer

Bao Ton was in a difficult position for a Vietnamese food aficionado: He couldn’t stand dingy restaurants, yet his cravings for Vietnamese fare were satisfied only at the cramped Little Saigon joints that serve up jumbles of noodles and meat.

Frustrated, Ton quit his job at an insurance firm some years ago and helped his mother open a restaurant. It offers classic Vietnamese dishes, but with the urban hipness of the sleek sushi restaurants he admired.

And so came Quan Hy, stylish and spotless, a rare slice of swank in a mishmash of Little Saigon hole-in-the-walls with old-fashioned ideas of serving food and catering to customers.

“We wanted a place that was clean and nice, not a place where they throw a spoon at you and don’t care about you,” said Ton, 34, who runs the restaurant with his parents, four brothers and three sisters. “We grew up here with American expectations. It’s a new culture, and we have to adapt to it.”

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It’s a bold concept in Orange County’s Vietnamese American community, where the many pho houses along Bolsa Avenue have generally catered to locals, kept food at bare-bones prices and all but ignored such things as customer service, presentation and ambience.

Ton’s restaurant is one of a handful of trendier eateries popping up in Little Saigon’s strip malls. New and young restaurateurs, many second-generation Vietnamese Americans who grew up in the Starbucks generation, are trying to lure those outside of Little Saigon by offering a little mood with the meals.

Some think these newer restaurants will help preserve Little Saigon’s vibrancy by bringing in a new crowd and keeping second-generation Vietnamese Americans from leaving the ethnic district -- long a concern in the community.

Quan Hy and sister restaurant Quan Hop, although not exactly high-end, boast features seldom before seen in Little Saigon.

Ton uses slices of raw filet mignon for the pho instead of lower-grade round steak, even though it costs $5 a pound more. Jazz wafts throughout the restaurant. Servers wear black T-shirts and pants. The intoxicating soup comes in Japanese-style ceramic bowls, which are “very expensive,” Ton said, but “good for presentation.”

For years, Little Saigon restaurants were comfortable fits with locals, places that seemed like home to immigrants. Many offered family recipes from the homeland, handed down through generations. But most were grungy, low-tech, basic eateries that were turn-offs to some diners, especially those from outside the area.

Reaching out to people who aren’t Vietnamese has been a struggle for restaurant owners who do not speak English. Most menus were written only in Vietnamese. Customers tolerated minimal service. And outsiders who did venture in practiced a common ritual: vigorously wiping down plastic chopsticks with napkins for fear they weren’t sanitary.

Lauren Tang, 32, used to warn non-Vietnamese friends before bringing them to favorite Little Saigon restaurants: You’ll get delicious food, but don’t expect much more than that. “I had to lower their expectations of what it was going to be like so they weren’t shocked by it,” said Tang, an attorney from Irvine.

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As Vietnamese cuisine -- seen as a light alternative to heavier Chinese food -- began to gain in popularity, it slowly found a niche in urban hipness outside Vietnamese enclaves.

High-end Vietnamese fusion restaurants catering to non-Vietnamese crowds opened in San Francisco and Los Angeles, such as Beverly Hills’ Crustacean, offering Euro-Vietnamese blends. And it certainly didn’t hurt when President Clinton ate at San Francisco’s Slanted Door in 2000.

But in Little Saigon, the trend didn’t immediately have an impact. If anything, fierce price wars pushed down the price for pho bowls to an average of $5. Hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants, some serving virtually the same menu, popped up in the 3-square-mile area in Westminster and Garden Grove. Some didn’t make it and shut down.

Change has been afoot in the community over the last few years, and now the younger generation is finding more places to take friends in Little Saigon.

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Tang, the attorney, brings her friends to higher-end Brodard Chateau and S Fine Dining, on the outskirts of Little Saigon, which offer wine lists, full bars and table linens.

Tang said she doesn’t mind paying a few extra dollars for better service and ambience at the nicer restaurants, though she still loves eating at the cheaper eateries that stick to tradition.

“Many of my friends who are real foodies don’t care at all about what a place looks like, as long as it tastes good,” she said.

Part of the challenge facing the new, trendier restaurants is to avoid alienating first-generation immigrants who revere traditional dishes that they say could be -- and should be -- bought for mere dollars

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Quan Hop’s pho with filet mignon is a steep $8.95, but it’s one of the most popular dishes with the younger generation. When the family decided last year to raise menu prices by $1, it riled some older Vietnamese patrons.

“It’s hard to convince people who are used to the old style,” Ton said.

He has faced groups trying to bargain down checks. He even started charging a gratuity for groups larger than six, a foreign concept in Little Saigon, where a $1 tip is sometimes good enough.

But Mai Tran, 49, whose family owns Pho 79, one of Little Saigon’s oldest pho joints, said customers will continue to come because the food is traditional and affordable, not because of what’s hanging on the walls. Pho 79’s most expensive extra-large pho bowl sells for $6.65. Locals continue to pour in, some as often as three times a day.

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“We just concentrate on the food,” Tran said. “When decor is fancy, perhaps people will go to see what it is about, but see if they come back. Maybe if it’s expensive, they only go there to impress their girlfriend or boyfriend.”

Developers and local politicians have long feared that Little Saigon would be abandoned by the younger Vietnamese American generation who no longer needed Vietnamese-speaking shops and services. And the area has historically struggled to lure outsiders.

“Everyone that buys and sells in Little Saigon buys and sells to each other,” said Tony Lam, the first Vietnamese immigrant elected to the Westminster City Council. “When the older generation fades, then its over.”

But many younger Vietnamese American entrepreneurs say they see a future in Little Saigon’s streets. Younger Vietnamese Americans are opening dessert and yogurt shops and new Starbucks-like cafes with free wireless Internet.

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Lam said the newer restaurateurs will pump new life into Little Saigon and transform the way older businesses work.

“Now other restaurants will have to follow suit,” Lam said. “They know they can’t do business a-la-Vietnamese style.”

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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