Review From Asia with love

Made-to-order Goi Cuon are among the delights of Vietnam Gardens

Christine and John Tan, owners of Vietnam Gardens, show off some of thier popular dishes. From left: Goi Cuon - Vietnamese summer rolls, served with fish sauce and peanut sauce; Bun Bo, a hot and spicy beef-and-noodle soup; Haw Mok (fish, shrimp, and squid sautéed in a special curry and coconut sauce); and chicken lemon grass with Vietnamese spring roll. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The story behind the opening of Vietnam Gardens Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese Restaurant is a saga of love between the venue's proprietors, Christine and John Tan.

Sit down for a succulent plate of Yum Nua, a Thai specialty of thinly sliced, marinated beef served with cool onion, celery, cucumber, and lettuce slathered with lemon juice and optional squid sauce. Linger over a side order of steamed rice and Cha Gio fried spring rolls. As you savor the flavors, ponder the happiness one can find in fresh cuisine, prepared by a pair of Asian cooks who crossed the globe to find each other, in San Antonio.

John graduated from the University of Malaysia with a computer science degree, and worked for a Malaysian publishing company. He moved to San Antonio in 1988, following his parents and other relatives. He worked in his aunt's Chinese restaurant on the South Side, starting as a dishwasher and moving on to management. He has traveled around the United States, but returned to this city because "people are nicer here."

Christine is the youngest of three siblings who stayed behind in Bien Hoa, a small town about 50 miles from Saigon in South Vietnam, with their grandmother after their mother married a U.S. soldier and moved to the states in 1970. Growing up in communist-ruled Vietnam in the 1970s-'80s "was tough," she says. "My grandmother sold cigarettes and chewing gum in front of a cinema, and I babysat for a neighbor. We worked very, very hard, and my parents would send us some money."

That experience groomed her for the hard work of operating a restaurant six days a week, serving fresh, not frozen, Asian cuisine to satisfied customers. "I had my own restaurant in Vietnam when I was 15. It was located in an outdoor market."

Christine left Vietnam in 1990 and settled in her mother's San Antonio home. "I was 24 years old, and I still asked my mother for permission to go out."

She received that permission when she met John eight years ago. She worked as a waitress at the Kim Tran Vietnamese Restaurant, where John became a regular customer. He asked her out after a couple of weeks, and eventually they married.

Vietnam Gardens opened for business at Blanco and Jackson Keller on June 1, 2001. They had saved their money and, without a bank loan, transformed a former Chinese restaurant into their own American dream. "We took two rooms, and did all the painting, remodeling, and decorating ourselves," says Christine. The going was tough, as the roads were under construction, and then came the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City, but "people trickled in, with word spread mostly by mouth."

Vietnam Gardens:
Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese Restaurant

5433 Blanco
Luncheon Specials
10:30am-4pm Mon-Fri,
11am-4pm Sat
Dinner Specials
4pm-9pm Mon-Sat
Price range $5-9
Take-out all day
Credit cards accepted
Wheelchair accessible
Now, business is so brisk that the Tans have outgrown their space and this summer they plan to move into a building around the corner on Jackson Keller.

Try the Goi Cuon Vietnamese summer rolls served with fish and peanut sauces. John makes them to order, so they arrive at the table filled with bean sprouts, noodles, slices of pork, and delectable steamed shrimp, and the wrapping still warm from soaking in water. For the main course, sample your dining partner's amazingly fresh curry chicken, sautéed in curry, coconut, and garlic sauce.

I have a face-off with my dining partner of 12 years. "Order the Haw Mok (fish, shrimp, and squid sautéed in a special curry and coconut sauce), so I can try it," she says.

"No, I'm having the Pad Thai. It's got rice noodles and shrimp with chicken, bean sprouts, and peanuts," I reply, knowing we will return to sample more of the myriad menu offerings.

"OK, I'll have that, too, and bring me a cup of egg drop soup," she says.

Locals like to consult with John on how to lose weight by eating Vietnamese food, and students at Robert E. Lee High School around the corner frequently order take-out from Vietnam Gardens. It's a learning experience, John says. "We educate our customers in eating Vietnamese food."

The couple make it a point to hire local high-school students to serve as wait staff and kitchen help, and plan to welcome a family from Vietnam when they immigrate to the states. Ask Christine and John Tan about children: "I want them to understand that education is important," says John. "They can do what they want, but education is important. I want our kids to know how hard we are working to make a better life for them."

Operating a restaurant such as the Vietnam Gardens can be time-consuming for the proprietors. "We both work 12 hours a day, six days a week," says Christine, who adds that Sunday will also be a workday when the new location opens. "The first year-and-a-half, we worked seven days a week. On Sunday, we still have to shop for supplies and groceries.

"We spend every minute together, every day," says Christine, "but we are happy."

By Michael Cary

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