When Tammy Huynh and her niece Anne Le emigrated to the United States from Vietnam with 11 other family members in 1977,
Huynh’s mother could only find work as a cook. Fortunately, the cooking was good enough to base the family fortune on it.
The family now has five restaurants, including two — Palo Alto’s Tamarine and San Francisco’s new Bong Su — run exclusively by Le and Huynh. Their eateries offer a more high-end experience and experimental fare than the family’s more traditional Vung Tau restaurants, named after their seaside home village, though Bong Su offers more traditional dishes than Tamarine based out of three distinct regions of Vietnam.
It’s a country they visit often after leaving under difficult circumstances. Huynh’s father, a police officer, had been imprisoned in a re-education camp at the close of the Vietnam War, since the family lived in the south. When he was released, the family realized they did not want to remain in the now-entirely communist country. Trying to make everyone equal, the government issued new currency with equal amounts for every person, Huynh said.
"Life was so hard," she said. "We decided to risk it, because we had no future."
So they fled, by boat, at night, with others in their village, each taking small boats to meet up on a big boat, for which they paid the owner in gold. They drifted from country to country for about a week, turned away by Malaysia and Singapore as Christmas passed. They were taken in by Indonesia, whose government put them in a refugee camp. After a year, the family was sponsored by Catholic Charities and came to the U.S., where they had a relative in Lodi. Huynh was 15. Le was 1.
The family opened its first eatery in 1985. Growing up in the seven-day-a-week bustle of the successful Vung Tau restaurants in the South Bay, neither woman planned to stay in the business. Huynh studied pharmacology, and Le studied history and got a good job as a research consultant, which involved a lot of travel.
"I found myself much more interested in traveling based on where I could dine," Le said. "I would eat at a lot of restaurants and say, ‘Oh, I would do that differently.’"
Now Le works the "front" of their two restaurants, while Huynh is the head chef. Her cuisine, which mixes traditional foods with new elements, has paralleled the evolution of Vietnamese cuisine in Vietnam since the lifting of the trade embargo, Le said.
Both travel extensively to get new ideas, returning to their homeland at least once a year.