Trying to find Anny Dang in her restaurant at lunchtime is like trying to hit a moving target.
She is taking orders. She is darting into the kitchen. She is leaning over a customer’s table, quickly cutting up his food for him and adding several spoons of her mother’s trademark dipping sauce.
“I cut it up so you get just the right mixture of egg yolk and dipping sauce with the rice,” she says, rendering the fried egg that traditionally comes with some Vietnamese entrees into bite-sized pieces. “It’s better that way. Here, now try.”
Her younger sister, Cindy, greets a cluster of customers walking through the door of Huynh Restaurant and directs them to a table. Brother Binh emerges from the kitchen carrying attractively arranged plates of food. And tiny Van Bui, their mother, is piling beef bones into a five-gallon cauldron of water, which will cook all night to render fresh broth for pho. In another pot, pork bones and trimmings are beginning their 14-hour simmer for her special dipping sauce.
The other employees? A sister-in-law, a brother-in-law and cousins.
Huynh Restaurant, in the shadow of the George R. Brown Convention Center, is strictly a family affair. Since it opened 13 months ago at its EaDo location, its fresh, delectable food and unique dishes have earned the small but sparkling dining spot kudos in the Houston Chronicle, Texas Monthly and Saveur. It operated as Pho Huynh Restaurant for 10 years in Midtown until the sweeping development there and resulting high rent forced them to close.
Faithful clientele followed the family to its new digs, which started as a ratty shell of a former noodle house that had been vacant for two years. Each 14-hour day for six months, Anny and Binh ripped out the old walls, flooring and ceiling and refurbished the place in tones of sage and plum, never taking a day off until it was ready to inhabit with booths, dining tables and kitchen equipment.
They hadn’t been sure that day would ever come during their long sojourn to this country and to this address, but they weren’t willing to let the dream of a family restaurant out of their tenacious grasp.
The Dangs are continuing a noble Houston tradition of immigrant families starting with nothing, working long hours, sacrificing much and eventually establishing themselves firmly in this city’s dining scene. Mama Ninfa, the La family of Kim Son fame, Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s and Eleni and Dimitri Fetokakis of Niko Nikos all followed this pattern in making their restaurants into well-loved food destinations in this food-loving city.
Anny and her family hail from the central Vietnamese coastal city of Quang Ngai, where her father, Yen Dang, served in the South Vietnamese military and was sent to a re-education camp after the 1975 communist takeover. The government evicted his wife and children from their home, forcing them to stay with relatives during the six years he was imprisoned. Upon his release, he fled south to Saigon to avoid being relocated with his family to an isolated mountain area under government watch.
In 1990, he heard about a United Nations program for re-education camp detainees and their families to be relocated to the United States. The Dangs scraped together $200 and headed for Houston, where Anny’s uncle owned a jewelry store and offered her father a job.
The seven-member Dang family crowded into a two-bedroom apartment, and the kids enrolled in public school, although no one spoke English. Anny completed homework using the family’s Vietnamese-English dictionary, eventually graduating in the top 10 percent of her Sharpstown High School class.
Their mother got work at a Vietnamese restaurant and made a second paying job out of collecting and selling aluminum cans. No matter how small their income, they saved a little for the future.
Van Bui moved to a slightly higher-paying job at Pho Huynh on Milam, adding her own culinary inventions to the menu. Five years later, the owners tired of the restaurant business and Van Bui bought them out. Her five children worked there after school.
Meanwhile, Bryan Hucke, a solutions consultant for Sprint and self-described foodie, began frequenting Pho Huynh, delighted that the menu included a favorite dish he’d discovered in Vietnam. Enthralled by his enthusiasm, Anny suggested other dishes and he loved them. The two eventually began dating and were married two years later.
In 2006, the rent on their building on Milam had become so high that making a profit was a monthly challenge, and Van Bui closed the restaurant and retired. Family members scattered to other jobs. Anny and Bryan became parents to now-5-year-old Reagan, and the new mother juggled those duties while making real estate investments. Two years later, the Dang family landed at the Saint Emanuel location, and Van Bui happily came out of retirement to cook when the restaurant opened in mid-December 2008.
Despite the lousy economy, Bryan says the recession might actually work in favor of Huynh Restaurant, where appetizers start at $2.95 and nothing costs more than $10. Menu items bearing a happy face are specialties, including char-grilled pork and vegetables in a silky rice paper ($2.95); Phoenix Chicken, a crispy Cornish hen with rice and egg ($9.95); and a salad of pulled duck meat, fresh herbs and vegetables ($8.50). All come with Van Bui’s special homemade dipping sauces.
Anny has a short list of the happiest days of her life. The first was the day she and her family left Vietnam. The second was the day a laudatory press review drew lines of customers to her restaurant last spring, so many that they ran out of both food and the plates to serve it on well before closing time.
“There was nothing left for us in Vietnam. We had no future there,” Anny says. “And there was everything waiting for us here.”