Bang Tran grew up learning Spanish, eating menudo, albondigas and tortillas made by hand at his friend's houses. Tran grew up in what he calls, "The Heart of El Monte", on Cypress and Montecito by a community center called, "El Calvario" where he and many of his friends played sports, went on field trips and bonded with other local youth in the community. Though Tran, his brother Augustine, and the rest of their family made their home in predominantly Latino El Monte by learning some of the language and customs, they were also one of very few Vietnamese families at the time. Over the decades they've witnessed demographic and cultural changes in the community where they've laid their roots and today, Tran and his family is making their own mark in the neighborhood where they grew up -they run a family restaurant, Viet Huong, which serves some of the best Vietnamese dishes in the San Gabriel Valley.
Viet Huong is part of a noteworthy strip of Vietnamese restaurants in South El Monte and El Monte, which at a glance may seem out of place in a predominantly Latino and Chinese population. While the largest Vietnamese population is concentrated in Orange County, where Garden Grove and Westminister's Little Saigon has earned its place as the mecca for Vietnamese culture and cuisine, a cluster of pho and banh mi restaurants have nonetheless sprouted along Garvey Boulevard in this humble corner of the San Gabriel Valley, adding to the cultural richness of the area. Tran's family and restaurant are part of this small but thriving community that have woven itself into the local fabric.
Tran and his family have a story of arrival to the U.S. that many immigrants can identify with; yet it is also unique. Tran was born in Vietnam, and when he was just two years old his parents decided to escape the communist government in 1975 for a better life. They were part of the first wave of immigration from Vietnam following the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, and the end of the Vietnam War. In the spring of 1975 alone, over 125,000 people escaped Vietnam, with thousands more following the next few months and years.
Like many immigrant arrival stories, Tran's is also marked by moments of peril and struggle. He remembers riding on a little scooter built for two people with his parents and his other four siblings. As they managed to catch the last ship out of docks, they briefly were detained by the Communist army; but the captain managed to set out to sea to begin the journey to America. The ship in which Tran's family traveled broke down and floated adrift in the Pacific Ocean. The passengers and his family on board were saved by a freight cargo ship and were taken to a U.S. military base in Guam, until the Tran family was sponsored by a family in Hawaii through a Volag, or Voluntary Agency. Volag agencies, usually faith-based organizations, played a crucial role in providing reception and placement services for refugees arriving to the U.S.
Tran's first steps onto American soil were painful, hot, and burning. He says "I just had the clothes on my back and no shoes walking on the aluminum staircase down the plane." Tran's family lived in Oahu, Hawaii, for three years until his parents saved enough money to move to the mainland, in what is known as "secondary migration" which was common among Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees. Secondary migration was often an additional relocation step performed by many of these families as they sought more ethnically and culturally diverse areas, usually within metropolitan regions in states such as California and Texas.
Eventually the Tran family moved to Monterey Park where his parents cooked and sold food out of the back of their Ford Pinto station wagon. Tran says, "After saving enough money my parents were able to buy a "roach coach" (food truck) before they got hip". Little by little his parents' business grew and eventually, they were able to open a restaurant in Los Angeles that they ran for 23 years. Finally, in 2004 they opened a pho restaurant in El Monte, California.
Laying down roots
The walls of Viet Huong restaurant are covered with brilliant paintings of a church that Tran's father funded and designed back in Vietnam. His father, a two-time cancer survivor, wakes up early every morning to open the doors for morning mass at Nativity Catholic Church on Tyler Avenue, about a half mile from their restaurant. He even takes the retired priests meals from the restaurant every couple of days. His parents now have stepped away from the business as Tran and his brother Augustine have taken charge.
As a long time resident of El Monte, Tran has seen the culture change in his hometown. His older brother teaches at Arroyo High School where the Tran siblings also went to school. Tran sees a remarkable shift in the student demographic -- significantly more Asian people compared to when he was in high school. "It's about 30 percent Asian and the rest are Hispanic, and the minority are now Caucasian," he says. "[Back then] there were seven Asian students, and three of them were my brothers and sister," notes Tran humorously.
As the Asian population (mainly Chinese; Vietnamese only makes up a sliver of that group) has grown in El Monte, the number of Asian businesses and restaurants have multiplied noticeably as well. "When I first started, there were only about three Vietnamese places in El Monte," says Tran. However in the last few years, the strip along Garvey Avenue that runs through South El Monte and El Monte has become a hot spot for Vietnamese cuisine.
Even Pulitzer-prize food writer Jonathan Gold has noted, "... for the last several years, pho connoisseurs have known that the best pho parlors this side of Little Saigon have tended to cluster along an unlovely stretch of Garvey Avenue in South El Monte, a town best-known for its unusual concentration of auto-body shops."
Although Gold's favorite pho shop went out of business, new Vietnamese restaurants have sprouted in their place and the culinary constellation of pho remains steadfast, despite doubts of their sustainability in this unlikely home. Why the restaurants are there in the first place, and why they continue to flock here can only be speculated on. Not even Gold seems to know. While the local Vietnamese population in South El Monte and El Monte is certainly present in the demographic, it's far from becoming a Little Saigon. However, there are solid reasons why Tran's family restaurant has thrived while other businesses have twinkled in and out of the area.
Tran feels that his restaurant can stay on top of the competition because of their personal connection to the community and to its customer base. "I think we edge them out because we specifically don't serve to a single culture; I think we are open to everybody," he says. "It helps a lot that my brother and I speak fluent English and some Spanish that we learned from growing up with all my friends." The ambiance at the restaurant is comfortable and welcoming. As a result, its clientele is as diverse as the city itself, packing the house during its busy hours with laid back, young Asian Americans and Mexican Americans sipping on milky Vietnamese iced coffees and Latino families dressed in their Sunday best, sharing plates of spring rolls. Tran and his brother often provide impromptu pho tutorials to newbies, offering suggestions on how to unravel rice noodles into the broth, combine sauces, and shred basil and mint leaves topped with a squeeze of fresh lime.
It's no wonder that since the restaurant's opening in 2004 Tran has noticed a bump in clientele every year. "I think business is how good you treat your customers," he says. "If you treat them like family, you give them good food and good service then that's all you need."
And El Monte residents that have come to know Tran, his family, and their restaurant, also embrace them as family. Even former residents from El Monte, who still identify this place as home, will come from Riverside and other ever-extending suburbs to visit Tran and enjoy one of his meals. Sometimes, a taste of home in El Monte is flavored with aromatic herbs of Vietnamese cuisine, and plenty of Sriracha sauce.
And most importantly, like a true El Monte insider, Tran knows the community's greatest asset. "A lot of people think El Monte is ghetto. It's not. The community is great, there are awesome people here."
Viet Huong Restaurant is located on 1027 Garvey Ave in El Monte, California.