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Brodard: An Empire Built On Nem Nuong

Nem Nuong | Courtesy of Bamboo Bistro
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brodard westminster location
Brodard, Westminster location

Across from a pothole-pocked parking lot on an unremarkable road in Westminster sits Brodard Restaurant, a story of incredible success. Situated in the Mall of Fortune, the restaurant attracts a loyal customer base from the largest population of ethnic Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. About 200,000 Vietnamese-Americans now live in Little Saigon, which was founded in 1978. Neon store signs in Vietnamese or Anglicized Vietnamese dot Bolsa Ave., the center of the district, which clusters around Highway 22 and spreads across Westminster and Garden Grove.

Brodard nem nuong | Courtesy of Brodard
Brodard's signature dish, nem nuong | Courtesy of Brodard

Brodard and its constellation of restaurants, which reach from Corona Del Mar to Garden Grove, is one of the most successful independently owned restaurant franchises in Orange County. In a single day, the restaurant serves more than 10,000 nem nuong (spring rolls), Brodard, the original location, bustles with servers in white shirts and black pants distributing dishes fragrant with fresh herbs; large paintings of galloping horses decorate the wall of the high ceilings numbering eight for good fortune.

Like many Vietnamese-American, the Dang family who owns the restaurant has been able to thrive and succeed in America thanks to a hardy voyager. Diane's brother, Tho Nguyen, left Nga Trang, the family's seaside hometown in 1978, first landing in Thailand and eventually arriving in America. In 1988, he sponsored the Nguyen-Dangs: his sister Diane Nguyen, her husband Thuong Dang, and their three children, Lisa, Chau and Michael.

In Vietnam, the Nguyen-Dangs had owned a large bakery they had taken over from Diane's parents in 1960. The bakery, Hoa Bien, specialized in bread and pastries. When they arrived in Little Saigon, Diane and Thuong went to work for a bakery on Bolsa Ave., the heart of Little Saigon. It took them seven years before they were able to purchase their own 600-square foot eatery in the Asian Garden Mall. They continued under the existing name and served much of the same fare -- bun bo hue (a spicy beef noodle soup) and hu tiu (a clear broth pork tapioca noodle soup) -- but also began serving nem nuong, house-made pork or shrimp sausages filled with fresh herbs, wrapped in rice paper, and dipped in a savory umami sauce made of sweet rice, crab paste, chicken broth, and spices. A deep fried wonton skin nestled in the core of the sausage adds a satisfying crunch.

lisa dang at brodard chateau
Lisa Dang at Brodard Chateau

Once the family began selling pre-rolled nem nuong, business took off. Traditionally the nem nuong dish was DIY -- where you assemble the separate ingredients and roll them right before you ate them. Lisa Dang, Diane’s eldest daughter and now a co-owner of Brodard, remembers that within a few months, "People started coming to the mall just to eat at the restaurant." In 1996, the mall landlord encouraged them to open a restaurant in his mall complex across the road. They named their new venture Brodard, a name conceived by Thuong Dang and derived from the French word brodeur, which means embroiderer. "When people hear that name ‘Brodard' they’ll think of croissants and pastries,” he explains.

asian garden mall from wikipedia where the family first started their food business
Asian Garden Mall where the family first started their food business | Wikipedia

Unfortunately the new location proved to be a huge setback for the family-run business. Although there had been plans for a pedestrian bridge to cross over the road from the Asian Garden Mall, when that bridge failed to materialize, business flagged. At the same time, Thuong Dang suffered a stroke.

Banh Khot,  crispy rice cakes filled with whole shrimp, mung bean & scallions, flavored with a dash of turmeric and served with Asian greens and lime chili fish sauce | Courtesy of Brodard
Banh Khot, crispy rice cakes filled with whole shrimp, mung bean & scallions, flavored with turmeric | Courtesy of Brodard

Lisa Dang, who had been at school studying business, dropped out of her studies to help their mother.Her brother did the same. "I'm the oldest," Lisa explains, referencing the filial piety that is deeply held in first- and second-generation immigrant families. Through the strength and persistence of Diane Dang, her brother and her children, the restaurant thrived again even as other businesses left the complex and Thuong Dang's health remained uncertain.

In 2000, when the landlord sold that mall complex, which became a residential area, Brodard moved to its current location, an expansive 7,500-square feet space inside the Mall of Fortune. The restaurant's success spurred them to open sister restaurants. Bamboo Bistro, on the Pacific Coast Highway in Corona del Mar, opened in 2002 and is helmed by Chau Dang-Haller. In 2006, when Brodard Chateau opened in Garden Grove, the family's previously under-the-radar, burgeoning restaurant empire finally started getting notice from people outside the local Vietnamese-American community. Within the first year a Los Angeles Times journalist came knocking on their door and Brodard was recognized for its delicious cuisine beyond the local Vietnamese-American community.

With Diane Dang getting older, Lisa Dang decided to move from front of house to back of house and completed two years of culinary education at Cordon Bleu. And now, in 2017, the Brodard family of restaurants is expanding again — this time to Fountain Valley across from Mile Square Park and hope to open in fall of 2017. "It's a great location," says Lisa. "We feel that the Vietnamese-American community is expanding into Fountain Valley."

The fourth of the Brodard restaurants will be in an 8,000-square foot space that used to house Burger King and Blockbuster. While avid nem nuong eaters will need to wait until the anticipated November 2017 opening, Lisa Dang's eyes brighten when she talks about the family's plans for the new location, including a takeout area, a bar for solo diners, a casual dine-in area and of course a bakery — to maintain the family tradition begun by her maternal grandmother. Lisa Dang credits the family's success to its ability to adapt to the demands of its customers and to a simple fact: "We are women who love to cook."

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