I've never experienced a weekend," says Duc Huynh, who runs the second Vinh Xuong Bakery. His parents opened the original bakery on Federal Boulevard more than 24 years ago and still work there from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the week, baking baguettes and other Vietnamese sweet and savory goods. It's the only life they've ever known: Huynh's grandparents on his mother's side owned a bakery in Vietnam, and his parents met when his father started working there at the age of twelve. After they came to the United States, the couple opened their first bakery together in Denver, at West Sixth Avenue and Federal, across the street from Columbine Steak House (the space is now a muffler shop); three years later, in the early '90s, they moved their shop to its current location in the Far East Center.
When he wasn't at school, Huynh, who was born here, was at the bakery; his family meals and holiday gatherings were all there. "We never used the kitchen at home," he recalls. "After a while, we unplugged the refrigerator because there was never anything in it." From elementary through high school, he'd go straight to the bakery after class. Not surprisingly, after graduating from high school, he wanted to get as far away from Vinh Xuong as possible and explore other career options. So he enrolled at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in graphic design. He was doing freelance design work when it became clear that his family would need a bigger bakery in order to keep up with demand. The shop in the Far East Center had gotten so crowded with shelves full of Vietnamese foods that there was no room to seat customers who were buying lunch there; although the family had a small production bakery on Alameda Avenue, it wasn't big enough to fill all the large orders coming in and didn't have space for retail sales.
What lured Huynh back into the family business was the chance to set up the new space as he saw fit. "Opening up what I wanted," as he puts it. "The creative freedom allowed me to say, 'Yeah, I can do this.'" But money was tight, so he relied on his artistic skills and hard work to make do. He opened the second Vinh Xuong four years ago with secondhand tables and chairs, deep discounts on tile and other supplies from a small-business assistance program, and signage and art he either created himself or moved from the home he shares with his wife, just a few blocks away. The menu sign above the counter was built from a door he bought at Lowe's -- mounted sideways and covered with a list of banh mi sandwiches and smoothies. When he started serving coffee, he created a second menu by covering a whole wall with chalkboard paint.
With the new bakery in the back and a modern, if austere, banh mi shop up front, Vinh Xuong started to attract attention -- and business -- from the Athmar Park neighborhood surrounding Alameda Square Shopping Center. As money came in, Huynh made more improvements, adding modern light fixtures, a condiment station built from an old card catalogue he bought on Craigslist, and cushy armchairs that his wife reupholstered.
Like its furnishings, almost everything sold at this store is made from scratch. In addition to the baguettes for the banh mi, the family goes through thousands of pounds of carrots and daikon radish every month, which are shredded and pickled for the traditional sandwich filling; they even make their cold cuts and barbecued pork by hand, purchasing whole pork loin and then grinding, seasoning and pressing it into loaves to be sliced thin. "We make it simple so we can keep it cheap," Huynh says modestly, as if building a sandwich from scratch -- bread, deli-style meat, veggies and all -- were a simple matter.
Puff pastries filled with meatballs, French-style treats and traditional Vietnamese mooncakes are also made in-house. The mooncakes are popular enough that they're individually sealed in plastic with the store's logo and shipped around the country. Each mooncake is pressed in a hand-carved wooden mold and baked in a several-step process to give it a glossy egg-wash finish. There are many varieties; the filling for the most popular consists of more than twenty ingredients, which take several weeks to source each year before production ramps up for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Another version is stuffed with sausage that Huynh's father makes himself. And then there's a variety that calls for kaffir lime leaves. One recent year, Huynh recalls, when the supply of leaves dried up due to a disease that had decimated most of the crop, his father bought a kaffir lime tree at a local nursery and pruned off all the leaves so that he wouldn't disappoint expectant customers.
Keep reading for more about Duc Huynh of Vinh Xuong Bakery.
It's that kind of dedication that makes the food at Vinh Xuong so special -- and so cheap. "People want me to move to a different neighborhood or open a food truck," Huynh says, "but they wouldn't be $3.50 sandwiches anymore."
Plus, he likes where he is now. "My whole life has been within a mile of here," he explains. His parents still live about halfway between the two stores, and Huynh and his wife live not too far from his old elementary school. "The neighborhood has been getting more hip -- gentrified," he continues. "People are riding their bikes here, bringing their families, walking dogs over."
He sees the variety of new businesses in the area, especially the restaurants, as part of the draw of Athmar Park. But he also points out that employees of nearby breweries Wit's End, Chain Reaction and TRVE (which opened offices and a barrel-aging warehouse a few blocks north) have been coming in for banh mi. "Our biggest push in business is from the marijuana industry," he adds. "Dispensaries have definitely helped business -- the employees, not the customers."
In the last month, he's noticed employees from The Green Solution coming in almost every day. With no paid advertising, Vinh Xuong relies on word of mouth to gain new customers. "A lot of my customer base are regulars," he says. "I'm surprised at how many people I meet." He sees regulars bring in friends, who in turn become regulars. Although Athmar Park is slowly gentrifying, it's still far from the center of the Denver restaurant scene. But Huynh's explanation of Vinh Xuong's growing popularity makes sense: "People are willing to travel if the food is good." The bakery's name also makes sense in this context; Huynh says the name, loosely translated, means "always expanding."
Over the years, Huynh and his family have watched Federal Boulevard evolve and grow. He still spends most of his time within a short distance of the bakery -- like his parents, he puts in long days -- but he allows himself one day off a week, which he usually spends running errands for the business. Still, he has a little more time now to explore other parts of the city. He likes the Hornet on Broadway, in part because it's an easy drive from Vinh Xuong. "I've been going there for years. It's not mind-blowing, but it's going to be the same every time and it's comfortable," he says. He also enjoys Crema Coffee House and Devil's Food Bakery.
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Dinners in local Vietnamese restaurants are less frequent than when he was younger, though. "The places we used to go have changed so much," he notes. "Plus, I honestly think my dad makes the best pho I've ever had.