One of Sonny Nguyen’s favorite childhood memories was eating out in Little Saigon.
“We would only go out to eat once a month, and it was a pho restaurant,” Nguyen, 38, said of the Vietnamese noodle soup dish. “It was a big highlight. It was a luxury.”
In the decades since, Nguyen has seen Little Saigon transform itself, from a place where “choices definitely were limited” to mom-and-pop Vietnamese eateries into what he called a “food mecca” for Southern California. The area now bustles with shops serving cutting-edge desserts and beverages. Fusion restaurants thrive with the help of social media, from customized churros and ice cream-stuffed doughnuts to cotton candy-topped tea and Asian-inspired tacos.
“It’s completely changed,” said Nguyen, who has been a part of this change as one of the co-founders of 7 Leaves Cafe, which offers beverages featuring flavors from across Asia, such as taro milk tea, Japanese matcha tea and mung bean milk tea.
“The transformation you’re seeing in Little Saigon is the second generation — or even the third generation — taking what was great and making it even greater,” he said.
“It’s not just an ethnic enclave for Vietnamese refugees who couldn’t speak English very well,” said Linda Trinh Vo, professor of Asian American Studies at UC Irvine. “It’s becoming a place that’s attracting new clients, new businesses, the younger generation, non-Vietnamese and foodies. It’s becoming known as a place for food innovation.”
Founded after the 1975 fall of Saigon forced hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to flee their homes, Orange County’s Little Saigon, which spans parts of Westminster and Garden Grove, started as a clustering of a handful of family-owned restaurants and shops.
Eateries served traditional Vietnamese fare, “catering more exclusively to the new refugees and immigrants,” said Vo, and helping to “satisfy their cravings for home.” Today, many second-generation restaurant owners are taking those same Vietnamese flavors and blending them with tastes from their upbringing in Southern California.
“This generation grew up with an exposure to different kinds of foods, growing up in multi-ethnic, multi-racial neighborhoods,” said Vo. “It expanded their taste buds.”
At 7 Leaves Cafe, Nguyen said the most popular drink is a creamy iced Vietnamese coffee — a Vietnamese take on the Frappuccino.
And Andy Nguyen, one of the co-founders of Afters Ice Cream, said his jasmine milk tea and Vietnamese coffee ice cream were inspired by his favorite drinks growing up in Westminster.
“We used to hang out at all the [drink] spots all the time, and jasmine milk tea was my go-to drink,” he said. “So I thought, can we turn that into an ice cream flavor?”
Meanwhile, Hop Pham, one of the co-founders of Dos Chinos, said the inspiration behind his Vietnamese-Mexican fusion menu was his childhood in Santa Ana and the Mexican-American friends who introduced him to a variety of new foods.
“They fed me cactus, and I was like, ‘What is this? I don’t know if I can eat this, it has needles and stuff’— but it was delicious,” Pham said. “And they fed me avocado with salt, and I was like, ‘Avocado with salt?’ Because in Vietnamese community we normally eat avocados with sugar so it was the total opposite of what I’m used to.”
“We’re living really close together, cultures were intermarrying, we’re best friends, growing up together — there needs to be a Vietnamese-Mexican something,” Pham said of how he thought of the idea for Dos Chinos, a food truck that offers tacos, burritos and bowls with ingredients such as Vietnamese chimichurri chicken.
Tam Nguyen, former president of Orange County’s Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, said the restaurant industry in Little Saigon has exploded in the past five years, fueled in large part by young entrepreneurs leaving careers in medicine, law, banking and technology for something they’re more passionate about — food.
While Vietnamese Americans live throughout Orange County, Nguyen explained that many young restaurant owners still come back to Little Saigon to establish their shops.
Part of this is for practical reasons, he said — the rent is cheaper than other parts of the county, and many still have family ties in the area — and also for authenticity, a sense that a Vietnamese restaurant “has to succeed to the Vietnamese palate first and foremost.”
But it’s also out of a sense of responsibility to the community.
“As second-generation stakeholders, it’s important that we have that conversation — and continue to do so — so that Little Saigon doesn’t become neglected in the next generation and that it continues to be a draw for food, culture and activities for our children,” Nguyen said. “Now that we’re young parents and our children are born here, they need to be drawn to Little Saigon in the same way that we were growing up.”
With the surge of new eateries, the customer base of Little Saigon has changed, too.
Loan Nguyen, co-founder of The Loop, which offers churros that can be customized with dips, glazes, toppings and frozen yogurt, said that “80 to 90%” of her customers aren’t Asian. “We wanted to come up with a dessert that appeals to everybody,” she said.
Pham, of Dos Chinos, said that customer diversity extends to traditional eateries as well.
“Before it was probably 98% Vietnamese,” he said. “Now it’s a great mix. You go to some of the great hole-in-the-walls that the local community has supported for 20 years, and you’ll notice that there’s Vietnamese, Mexican, white people, black people.”
UC Irvine’s Vo said the culinary transformation of Little Saigon also is affecting tastes outside the area, as evidenced by food items such as Sriracha sauce and banh mi sandwiches finding their way into mainstream American restaurants.
“It’s changed the palate of Orange County,” Vo said. “It’s changed the demand for what kind of food is being popularized and what kinds of businesses are being successful. And it’s changing people’s vocabulary. Who knew what ‘banh mi’ meant five years ago?”
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.