A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita
A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita | Foto: A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita

Hannah An, A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita

Por: Diego Cerón

21, September, 2022 en Business Concept

Hope comes in different shapes and forms, but if you are to ask Hannah An, who belongs to the An dynasty family, she will surely tell you that it all started from her mother’s signature garlic noodles.

Hannah comes from a prominent generational family who loves food. Born and raised in the Imperial City of Vietnam, Hannah is the eldest child of five sisters who grew up tasting a variety of cuisines. Hannah’s story goes way back to her grandmother, Diana, the wife of a dignitary and successful businessman who often traveled around the globe and entertained guests at home. Hannah’s exposure to food enabled her to explore her taste buds. “My family hired private chefs that cooked Vietnamese, Chinese, French, and Italian food. We loved to eat, and my palate already determined what sumptuous food was at an early age,” she shares.
During her grandmother’s visit to San Francisco in the 70s, she fell in love with The Golden State and wanted to establish roots there to live the best of both worlds in Vietnam and San Francisco. For this to be possible, in 1971, Diana bought a twenty-four-seat Italian deli in the tranquil Sunset area of San Francisco. Unbeknown to the An family, this deli would foreshadow what was yet to come.

A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita
A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita

In 1975, the fall of Saigon occurred which forced Hannah and her family to evacuate Vietnam and migrate to the US. Departing the country in haste, the An family left with nothing except the clothes they were wearing. They stayed a few weeks at an American military camp in Manila, then moved to Guam, followed by living at Refugee Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California. After the traumatic experience, Hannah and her family reunited with Diana in San Francisco. “I was only eleven years old at that time. We lost everything we had in Vietnam and had started from scratch. At a young age, I struggled to learn English and help with the family restaurant by washing dishes and making dumplings. It was like night and day from our life in Vietnam, where we had acres of land, household help, and everything catered to our needs. This was our new reality, where my parents, siblings, and grandparents lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment above the restaurant,” she discloses.

Paying tribute to her Vietnamese heritage and European influence, Hannah’s mother, Helene, the matriarch of the family transformed the Italian deli into a restaurant named Thanh Long. While Thanh Long was their only source of income, the profit margins didn’t sum up to be fruitful. Helene worked as an accountant during the day and nighttime at the restaurant to help support her household. As the glue that kept the family together with a universal goal of survival, Helene did everything to achieve the American dream and make the new country her home. “My mother recalled and missed the luscious food our chefs cooked back in Vietnam. She experimented with the recipes and slowly introduced the dishes at the restaurant,” Hannah informs.
Never did the An family anticipate that the quaint restaurant would serve to be an icon and one of the most sought-after destinations in San Francisco. Recognized as the first Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, Thanh Long became an all-time favorite mom-and-pop destination for local and foreign visitors and celebrities like Harrison Ford, Robin Williams, and Danny Glover. Thanh Long symbolizes the pillar of the An family dynasty, with Helene An acclaimed as the ‘Mother of Fusion.’ “We became known for our Roasted Crab, Tiger Prawns, and Garlic Noodles which my mother, Helene, takes pride in creating this dish. Since Americans savor pasta, my mother developed her own concept of noodles utilizing the benefits of garlic and herb. Our restaurant opened more than fifty years ago, and what started as a 24-seat Italian deli has evolved into a 240-seat-restaurant. We are grateful for our growth, expansion, and success. We are delighted to serve regular and new customers who have been instrumental in our journey.” She smiles.

While working at the restaurant, Hannah acquired her Bachelor’s degree in Biology. Since the restaurant business truly resonated with her, Hannah continued to devote her time to her family business. In 1991, Hannah and her sister persuaded her mother that it was time to deliver Vietnamese food to the mainstream. Raising the bar, the An family established the first fine dining upscale restaurant named Crustacean and opened their second branch four years later in Beverly Hills.

Crustacean received a 2-star rating from a food critic who wrote for a newspaper, indicating that it wasn’t traditional Vietnamese food. Their restaurant was not well received since the diners did not understand fusion food at that time. The irony of it all is Helene intentionally didn’t want to serve traditional Vietnamese dishes knowing the Americans were not prepared for this type of food. Instead, she integrated Modern Asian and a European flair into her cooking to deliver something different. “Shortly after, a food critic from another newspaper gave a favorable review. We decided to take the leap of faith and posted both reviews on an ad in the newspaper with a quote, ‘Come and find out for yourself.’ This worked and drew in a crowd. Crustacean is known for its seafood which contains natural ingredients and antioxidants which can help elevate your immune system. Hollywood celebrities often dine at the Beverly Hills branch,” she conveys.

A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita
A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita

In 2009, the An family launched Anqi Bistro at South Coast Plaza in Orange County, Los Angeles that is popular among the locals and tourists. In 2011, they opened Tiato Market Garden in Santa Monica, Los Angeles which is a farm-to-table concept using the finest ingredients. In 2018, they commenced Dalat Rose that offers a 12-course meal for private dining and selected venues. Dalat Rose temporarily halted operations due to the pandemic. In 2020, they set up Anqi Shaken + Stirred at Bloomingdale’s Steven Creek, Santa Clara, California. They plan on inaugurating their first branch outside the United States―Crustacean will be introduced in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Aside from their restaurants, the An family extended their services to An Catering which was voted as “Star Caterer to the Stars” where they can enjoy Helene’s recipes in the convenience of their own home. Helene debuted her cookbook, An: To Eat: Recipes and Stories from a Vietnamese Family Kitchen that depicts the history, recipes, and how she presented Vietnamese cuisine to mainstream America. The An family was inaugurated in the Smithsonian Museum for being the pioneers of introducing Vietnamese food to the mainstream.

Embarking on her solo journey, Hannah spearheaded The District by Hannah An in Beverly Hills, featuring authentic Vietnamese cuisine with a modern twist. Vietnamese food is known to awaken the senses with its distinct taste. “My restaurant offers gourmet dishes from North and Central Vietnam as well as my favorite food while growing up and from my travels. Vietnam is known to be the Paris of the Far East, with French, Chinese, and Japanese influence. While each country uses different flavors and methods of cooking, Vietnamese food is known to be very balanced. We don’t only use one flavor in our dishes, and, instead, we combine sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory flavors in an equal balance. No specific flavor should overpower the other flavors. If we use butter, we add herbs to align the heaviness. Vietnamese food is all about balancing the art and science with simplicity and a symmetrical flavor that brings harmony to the table,” she describes.

As an Executive Chef and restaurateur, Hannah loves to express her creativity in the food she creates. “I love looking at food and perceiving how to make it taste good. My goal is to enhance all the flavors by using fresh vegetables and proteins while injecting herbs and spices. My presentations are clean, simple, and pleasing to the eye. The concept is to see what you’re eating, and you should be able to taste the richness of each flavor,” she defines.

The District by Hannah An is inducted in the Michelin guide restaurant. The restaurant closed during the pandemic but Hannah appreciates all the lessons she has learned from cooking and being an entrepreneur. “I love engaging with the customers and seeing the smile on their faces after indulging in a meal. I also enjoy planning the meals and designing the menu. However, owning and operating a restaurant is like having a newborn baby that never grows up. A restaurant can never be on its own, when it’s slow, you can need to find ways to be creative. When it’s busy, you need eyes at the back of your head and extra pairs of hands. You need consistency to remain on the radar. A lot of restaurants come and go, and you need to invest time and money to stay relevant. The food is the heart of the business, but many factors like marketing, quality control, cleanliness, and stellar customer service contribute to the success of a restaurant,” she explains.

A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita
A Taste of Hope From Garlic Noodles by Geraldine Zialcita

After being involved in the restaurant business, Hannah is ready to diversify. Her next project involves health and wellness using Vietnamese dried food products and supplements. “There is a lot more to Vietnamese food that you can bring to the table. Traditional Eastern practice uses natural ways to treat the body and I’m drawn to creating a brand that can balance the Yin and Yang of our body. I hope to build my brand and continue to give back to the community,” she affirms.

As the third generation of entrepreneurs, Hannah looks back at the joys and trials she and her family have been through and acknowledges the strength, dedication, and commitment that led them to prosperity. She encourages her children who are currently employed to work hard and never stop learning something new. “I always tell my children they have to serve before they lead, and once they become successful, they can help others as well,” she expresses.

House of An, which is the mother company of the restaurant chain is a family affair headed by Helene with her daughters who share their respective roles and responsibilities. Despite their accolades, awards, and groundbreaking success, the core of the story begins with a privileged life in Vietnam which was stripped from them due to the communists that invaded their country. The An family never realized how their cozy and luxurious lifestyle could change in a split second. Their affluent status immediately transformed them into refugees. Beneath their quest for survival, lay a silver lining in the heart of San Francisco. From riches-to-rags and back to being wealthy, the An family achieved their full circle through loss, endurance, and labor of love. The restaurants and their businesses are manifestations of their hard work and perseverance. This entails a family saga of an American dream derived from despair that gave birth to hope and paved the way to victory. Hannah An concludes her story with a quote from her grandparents. “Fall with dignity and rise with humility.”