40 Years of Vietnamese Food in California: A Conversation with Andrew Lam

There’s no one way to prepare hủ tiếu, a noodle dish that could be considered a cousin of the more famous phở, but Dalat, one of the oldest restaurants in San Jose, is well respected for its version. Photo: Rachael Myrow
There’s no one way to prepare hủ tiếu, a noodle dish that could be considered a cousin of the more famous phở, but Dalat, one of the oldest restaurants in San Jose, is well respected for its version. Photo: Rachael Myrow

Like many Americans, I'm highly suggestible when it comes to food.  Tell me that Tết has arrived, for example, and I'm suddenly, compulsively in the mood for Vietnamese food. This Lunar New Year has a special historical resonance, too: we're coming up on the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.

It wasn't long after 1975 that Dalat opened in San Jose, one of California's twin hubs for Vietnamese culture in California, along with Orange County. Today, Dalat is a popular brunch and lunch destination, especially for those in the mood for hủ tiếu, a noodle dish that could be considered a cousin of the phenomenally famous phở.

There's no one way to prepare hủ tiếu, but Andrew Lam is game to try describing the dish. He's a writer and editor with New American Media and the author of three books, including East Eats West. Hủ tiếu, he says, is "kind of pan-Asian," something the South Vietnamese borrowed from neighbors in Cambodia, Thailand and China and then proceeded to modify. This mashup approach appears to be a theme with Vietnamese cuisine.

Andrew Lam digs in at Dalet in San Jose. Photo: Rachael Myrow
Andrew Lam digs in at Dalet in San Jose. Photo: Rachael Myrow

The way Dalat makes it, there's a lovely pork bone-based broth, rice noodle, shrimp, crab, sliced pork, green onion, cilantro, sauteed garlic and shallots. "Especially Southern dishes tend to have a lot of herbs and vegetables, cause it's a tropical world," says Lam. A lot of Vietnamese like to order it with the soup on the side and the noodle dry, and that's how we order it, spooning the broth over the noodles. For those game to try this at home, here's one recipe.

In the first days after the Vietnam War, refugees landed in many cities throughout the United States. They began to gather in large numbers in San Jose in the 1980s to take advantage of the manufacturing work available in Silicon Valley. A couple of entrepreneurs, Chieu Le and Henry Le, had a stroke of brilliance: Why not serve banh mi to the hungry masses at lunch out of a food truck? Thus, the chain Lee's Sandwiches was born.

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The Vietnamese sandwich grew out of French colonialism and the introduction of the baguette, pate, carrots, and mayonnaise.  Add chili peppers, cilantro, daikon, and any one of a wide variety of meats or tofu prepared in a Vietnamese fashion, and you have banh mi. Change Le to Lee and you have a going business proposition in the U.S., a business with 55 locations across the American West. Of course, there's no one right way to make banh mi, and aside from the California addition of the jalepeno, chefs are experimenting with a seemingly infinite number of permutations.

Another Vietnamese immigrant, David Tran, came up with the version of sriracha many of us are now addicted to. Huy Fong Foods of Irwindale in Southern California makes a hot sauce so ubiquitous on restaurant tables of all kinds, Lam says "It's become sort of like ketchup."

By far, the most successful Vietnamese import is pho. Lam muses "You can tell your dish is successful when Rachel Ray kind of screws it up! You know, it's when someone else teaches your mother's cooking back to you, that's when it transcends ethnic borders to become universal. What once belonged to you, now belongs to the world. Which is the natural progression, I think, of globalization."

I suppose it's fair to say all food is fair game for reinterpretation, but Ray does mispronounce sriracha. (Say "sir-RAH-cha").

Pho is served in a variety of ways in Vietnam. In the North, you don't find the profusion of herbs you find in the South. It's as much a function of geography as anything else, as the South is warmer. Lam has been back to Vietnam several times, and he says pho here in California is notably different from what gets served in the home country. The biggest difference? Portion size. Americans have super-sized their pho. "In America, what you call extra large is big enough for a family in Vietnam."

Gỏi sứa tôm thịt: Shrimp, jelly fish, pork, lotus stems, mint, peanut, cilantro, carrots, daikon = delicious! Photo: Rachael Myrow
Gỏi sứa tôm thịt: Shrimp, jelly fish, pork, lotus stems, mint, peanut, cilantro, carrots, daikon = delicious! Photo: Rachael Myrow

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As the palate of many Californians grows more sophisticated and adventurous, Lam has no doubt Vietnamese cuisine has other culinary blockbusters waiting in the wings. "People want that kind of authentic cooking."

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