Vietnamese Food

What struck me the most about our discussion of Vietnamese refugees in Alexandria, Virginia was the appearance of Vietnamese restaurants and the ways in which restaurant reviews from the Washington Post described them. Starting in the mid-to-late 1970s, the Washington Post published restaurant reviews for a increasing variety of cuisines. This phenomenon made me wonder not only about how these businesses were becoming quite successful, but also about how Americans were becoming interested in “ethnic” food and seeking some sort of authority on what fit their palate.[1]

Unlike early 20th century immigrant groups who worked in the food service industry, Vietnamese refugees who opened restaurants were actually serving Vietnamese food. One of the earlier pieces written on Vietnamese restaurants in Alexandra was a review of the East Wind restaurant, located at 809 King Street. In this 1981 review, the author, Phyllis Richman gave mixed criticism on the whole but harps on the high prices as well as the interior of the restaurant, which did match what Americans considered traditional oriental décor. [2] Richman did not give you the sense if she enjoyed the meal or not, mixing in both positive and negative comments on the food.

Richman on The East Wind restaurant- 1981

Illustration 1: Phyllis Richman, “East Wind”,  The Washington Post, April 9, 1981.

The second Vietnamese restaurant to be reviewed in Alexandria, also by Richman, was Nam’s River in 1988.  Unlike her first review, Richman went into much more detail about the restaurant and really focused on the atmosphere and the experience of dining at Nam’s River. She began her review talking about her experiences eating at the first Vietnamese restaurant in the region. She then talked about the essential mix of European and traditional Vietnamese cooking (what we would consider today as fusion food) available at Nam’s River. She continued her review highlighting various dishes that showcased this “fusion technique,” such as the mussels in coconut milk.


Illustration 2: Phyllis Richman, “Nam’s River”, The Washington Post, April 24, 1988.


The newest of the three Vietnamese restaurants was reviewed in 1989–the Ambrosia Café. In this review, the author, Joan Horwitt went into much more detail about the life and the education of the owners, Dat Lu and Hanh Phun. She highlighted that both of them were classically trained in Saigon and that they were possibly of mixed French-Vietnamese descent.[3] Although Horwitt seemed interested in the owners and their story, there was a condescending tone throughout the review. She pointed out various dishes that would fit many palates, mentioning not only Vietnamese dishes but also French and American ones available at the restaurant. While reading this review, the thoughts of Andrew Friedman’s Covert Capital and his discussion of the racial politics of the initial evacuations came to mind. In that book, he touches on “the white faces in the crowd” meaning that those Vietnamese who were “appeared white” were more likely to get out of Vietnam and more likely to be embraced by the white, American public.[4]

With the rise of interest in ethnic food in the 1970s, the American population deemed it necessary to have authorities on the subject to help them navigate the newly available cuisines. This new trend in food required “experts” (who were not Vietnamese) share their opinions. These men and women were simply “foodies,” who were giving an opinion on a type of food with which they were unfamiliar. While these reviews did help guide non-Vietnamese living in Alexandria to explore Southeast Asian food, they were still from an American perspective. The result was that, the beauty of Vietnamese food, was lost in translation.


[1] Phyllis Richman, “Nam’s River”, The Washington Post, April 24, 1988.

[2] Phyllis Richman, “East Wind”,  The Washington Post, April 9, 1981.

[3] Joan Horwitt, “ The Ambrosia Café,”  The Washington Post, September 1989.

[4] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 172.

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