There was a time in Miami when traffic was bad only during rush hour, and when rush hour was, well, actually only one hour. Back then, life was slower. Businesses, especially restaurants, didn't come and go from year to year. They lingered, embraced by patrons who nurtured them, and in turn, they were nurtured back.
Such is the case with Hy Vong, the beloved Vietnamese restaurant on Calle Ocho, which exists today as it does in our memories thanks to this sacred partnership. One that I've been remiss in honoring...
Contrary to folklore, I have no problem getting a table when I pop in at 6:30 on a Thursday night for a long overdue visit. I am first wowed by beer. Yes, alcohol was something I did not even pay attention to the last time I was here, which clearly was way too long ago to be anything but embarrassing. There's an astounding 27 international beers on the menu including Tiger from Singapore and Red Stripe from Jamaica, plus one unexpected domestic, Anchor Steam. Bey Tunon, a waiter here of 10 years (he thinks,) is swift to arrive and take my
order, and food shortly follows.
The story of Hy Vong is, like its meaning, one of hope. And, as with
the stuff of legend, begs to be told time and time again. If this doesn't inspire you, nothing will. Tung Nguyen was a Vietnamese refugee, widowed and pregnant, who found her way to Miami - and to sponsor Kathy Manning - in 1975. After daughter Lyn was born, the restaurant followed five years later. Tung had talent in the kitchen and got more than she
bargained for when, in 2006, her exceedingly bright daughter ditched the investment banking career an Ivy league education had afforded her and moved home to branch the business into frozen "Heat & Eat Delicacies." Smart move.
Everyone else has a story about Hy Vong, too. In my cousin Stacie's case, it's the crack of dawn wake-up call her friend Ellen receives thanks to daily deliveries of fresh Key West snapper to her High Pines neighbor -- none other than Kathy Manning.
My aunt Susan ate with friends a couple of weeks ago before embarking on a trip to Vietnam.
Ask Carmen and Jerry Gomez, the couple seated across from me, what keeps them coming back after 17 years, and they'll tell you it's the personal service. No corkage fee doesn't hurt either.
"We started coming when we first got married. We used to live around here," Carmen explains. "We've moved now, but this is still our neighborhood place. At other
restaurants, you can tell they want to turn the tables. Here, they don't rush you no matter how busy they are."
Banh Cuon, the luscious ground pork and mushroom-filled rolling cake ($6)
I had already ordered a ton, but on Carmen's advice, I add a half order of the spring roll. Jerry chimes in that the tongue is his favorite. Carmen concurs. So I'll just have to come back. Carmen reminds me that seatings tend to run at 6, 8 and 10. "Come a little before 6, and put your name down on the list. It's kind of hidden; you may not notice it at first on the window sill."
Carmen hasn't come across spring rolls (Cha Gio) like this anywhere else ($4)
Pumpkin soup has texture and is savory, not too sweet ($3.50)
Mangoes are in season folks -- and you know the fish is as fresh as it comes, paired with peppercorns mild enough to bite down on ($16.95)
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Hy Vong will turn 20 in 2010, and it's still humming with customers new and old thanks to some elbow grease in the kitchen, and the loyal patronage of a handful of regulars like the Gomez family to ensure that the unwritten code of the Hy Vong dining experience is passed along. If it isn't already in the works, a book deal is in order. Or maybe there's an aspiring young local filmmaker salivating at the prospect of such a project? But I suspect that these remarkable women are just too busy doing what they do best for such dalliances. Cooking classes, catering, prepared meals... You name it, they've got it. For now, the story-telling is up to us.
3458 S.W. 8th Street
Closed Mon - Tues
Open Wed - Sun 6 - 11 p.m.
Reservations for parties of 5+