University City: A Family Affair at Saigon Cuisine

Chefs cleaning up after the lunch rush.

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The Lam family took a chance. They pooled together their money to open a restaurant, named Saigon Cuisine, and entrusted two brothers, Then and Len Lam, to make it successful.

“We know we can do it, that’s why they trust us,” Then said.

A waiter takes his break and enjoys a hot meal.
A waiter takes his break and enjoys a hot meal.

Saigon Cuisine is located at the corner of 40th and Chestnut streets. It opened in December and took the place of Kamol Phutlek’s Nan, a pioneering Thai-fusion mainstay in the area. Then quickly recognized how his business could flourish in this location.

“I saw there wasn’t any Vietnamese food around…so I challenged myself to bring the best food to the neighborhood,” Then said.

Then and Len act as manager and head chef of Saigon Cuisine, respectively. While Then ensures all guests are happy and servers are on task, Len frantically hops around the kitchen cooking and cleaning.

The brothers immigrated to America from Vietnam 22 years ago and have lived in Philadelphia ever since, working at various restaurants, picking up the skills they have now.

“We have learned the hard way,” Then said.

 Then, a resident of Fishtown, said he loves Philadelphia and cannot imagine leaving.

Chefs cleaning up after the lunch rush.
Chefs cleaning up after the lunch rush.

The interior of Saigon Cuisine is sparse. Three rows of wooden tables trifurcated the light pink and mint green accented room; the paneled, lacquered ceiling reflected the light emanating from the lamps lining the walls, but never proved to be a distraction.

The focus, made obvious by design, is the food. Len said they try to use fresh ingredients for everything, including the beverages. They buy ingredients from local markets to make their Vietnamese food as traditional as possible.

“Fresh food all the way,” Then chimed.

Saigon Cuisine has a staff of seven. Four are full-time workers, three are part-time and one is in training.

Sa Dao, the employee-in-training, is currently working as hostess. Dao, originally from Vietnam, moved to Philadelphia with her friend after graduating from West Kentucky University with an MBA.

A plate of delicious tofu pad thai.
A plate of delicious tofu pad thai.

Dao has not worked at Saigon Cuisine for long, but already has fond memories of certain patrons. Dao recalled the time when a group of Caucasian Americans came into the restaurant and spoke perfect Vietnamese; it gave her much pleasure to speak her native language to friendly strangers.

Len recommended people unfamiliar with Vietnamese food to try their Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’), a soup made with rice noodles and meat.

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