Katherine "Kathy" Manning clearly recalls the first time she tasted Tung Nguyen’s pho.
The year was 1975 and Manning, a graduate student at the University of Miami, invited 14 Vietnamese refugees into her home. Nguyen, 23 years old, alone, and pregnant, was one of them.
At the time, the women had no idea a friendship would ensue, nor how many people their lives — and their food — would touch.
Quietly assuming the position of resident chef for a houseful of homesick refugees, Nyugen began cooking her grandmother’s traditional Vietnamese-style beef soup. Manning recalls her friend’s acclimation to American ways. The young refugee had never cooked on a gas stove, shopped in a grocery store, or used refrigeration.
“Tung arrived in Miami with one little bag, and she didn’t speak any English,” Manning remembers. “When we got home, she went straight into the kitchen and began cooking. That was the first time I tasted her food, and it was magnificent. I thought, ‘This is the best soup I’ve ever tasted.’ Everyone was slurping it down.’”
From that chance meeting, one of Miami’s most celebrated restaurants, Hy Vong, was born.
But not right away.
To make ends meet, Nguyen would make and sell pho to friends. One day she was transporting a huge potful to a friend's home when it toppled, spilling hot broth all over the car. After cursing a bit, she looked up to see a "for rent" sign in the window of a defunct clothing store in a vacant, two-story building off Calle Ocho. In an instant, she decided she would open a restaurant.
It took more than two years from the day Nguyen and Manning signed the lease for Hy Vong — which took its name from the Vietnamese word for “hope” — to open. When it did, it was a popular and critical success.
"Hy Vong is a bite-size marvel of a place on Eighth Street, one you can easily miss if you blink," rhapsodized Rafael Navarro, perhaps the most acid-tongued New Times restaurant critic in the paper's history, in a 1989 review. "And what does it offer? First, it’s got food that aims high, and reaches its destination. More important, it’s got soul, a conscience — humanity."
Today, Manning and Nguyen are widely regarded as the duo responsible for popularizing Vietnamese cuisine in Miami. During the '80s and '90s, the restaurant was a destination for foodies in the know.
Fittingly, this year's South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF) will pay tribute to Hy Vong's legacy with a special dinner on May 20 at Bachour, hosted by Antonio Bachour with Michelle Bernstein and Hy Vong’s dynamic duo, Manning and Nguyen.
At SOBEWFF, the talented quartet of chefs will celebrate the recent release of Nguyen and Manning’s Mango and Peppercorns: A Memoir of Food, an Unlikely Family, and the American Dream, inviting guests to indulge in moments of Hy Vong nostalgia with every bite.
The book, a multinarrator memoir with a foreword by Bernstein, is physical proof that family can be found in the shared love of food. The cookbook tells the story of the odd-couple friendship between Manning, Hy Vong’s exuberant front-of-house personality, and chef Nguyen, and the birth of their slow-food restaurant.
While Hy Vong shut its doors in 2015, its following remains as loyal as ever. Today people line up for pick-up orders of dishes like spring rolls and pho — dishes you can also learn to make at home, thanks to the book's inclusion of 20 of the restaurant’s most popular recipes — from the beef noodle soup and brothy chicken curry to spicy ribs and fish with mango sauce, and even the much-loved pork rolling cakes.
Carefully constructed squares made by wrapping a mildly-seasoned minced pork and shitake mushroom filling in delicate rice flour pasta, those pork rolling cakes are time-consuming to make, but worth the effort.
“At Hy Vong, they were made individually, by hand. We made hundreds a night at the restaurant,” Manning says. “But at home, the dish is fairly simple to re-create. Once you master the flour mixture, tacky enough to roll but pliable enough to part from the cloth, the rest is easy.”
Manning notes that Mango and Peppercorns is more than a celebration of Hy Vong; it also exposes the sometimes-harsh reality of obtaining the American dream, a relatable struggle echoed across Miami and its myriad refugee communities. It's also a powerful story of how food can be an anchor for friendship and family, and a tale of two resilient women from different backgrounds who inspired and supported each other to build a successful business.
“Our message with this book is simple. Don’t underestimate people,” Manning tells New Times. “There are a lot of jewels out there, all they need is an opportunity to shine, and that’s how I feel about Tung. And for that reason I want her to get the credit she deserves — for all the work she has done, cooking without compromise and sharing our unlikely accomplishment.”
Dinner hosted by Michelle Bernstein, Hy Vong, and Antonio Bachour. At Bachour, 2020 Salzedo St., Coral Gables. Thursday, May 20, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets are $250 and available via sobewff.org/bachour.
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