You know that sinking feeling after you make an unplanned — and potentially unwise — purchase? When you wake up (or sober up) the next day, worried about what your family and friends (not to mention that little voice inside your head) will almost certainly have to say about the fact that you ordered a hundred tiny top hats for your pet frog, or a shower curtain emblazoned with Nic Cage's face?
Thanh Thi Le Nguyen can top your story. Just five years after immigrating to the United States from her native Vietnam, Thanh (known universally as Mama Le) purchased what was, at the time, a red-sauce Italian restaurant — without consulting her family. "We are a small, family-run operation," says Mama, "and to purchase this restaurant meant giving all of our life savings."
Twenty-seven years later, Golden Saigon
, at 2648 South Parker Road in Aurora, is holding strong, and Mama is still turning out dishes not often found in other Vietnamese eateries.
Mama Le took over a red-sauce joint and turned it into a welcoming Vietnamese restaurant.
Van Le, Mama's daughter, was just ten years old when her mother came home with the news that she'd bought a "small little hole-in-the-wall," Van says, but she still recalls the family's reaction. "We didn't have a lot of money, and the question was, do we buy a house or a restaurant? [Mom decided], let's establish something we can always fall back on. It was a huge surprise. Reaction was...mixed," she laughs.
All of Mama Le's six children grew up working at Golden Saigon after school; Van recalls her older siblings pulling a flagrant bait-and-switch in order to coerce her into less desirable kitchen tasks. "They'd help out at the front, busing and doing other major duties," she says, "and they were like, 'Oh, this is really fun. Come peel this carrot.' You think it's one or two, but then they pull out a fifty-pound bag of carrots."
Now, Van and her brother Toan Le are integral to Golden Saigon's day-to-day operations — Van cooking alongside her mother in the kitchen, and Toan showing up every night after his day job as an accountant to run the front of the house. "He's kind of like our mascot," Van jokes, following up with a conspiratorial aside: "I'm his sister; I can say that."
One notable dish on Golden Saigon's menu is Mama Le's curry. According to Van, the lamb version is probably the eatery's most popular entree, though she notes that overall, the curry — with other choices of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, lamb or tofu for a vegan version — is the restaurant's favorite dish. "The curry is what brings everyone back," she says. "Vietnam is not known for curry, but [Mama's] recipe is so interesting because we don’t use the green or red curry Thais use. We use Indian madras curry powder. There’s a region in Vietnam where Indians would go and trade the spice, and that's where she learned to make the yellow curry." Mama spikes her version with coconut milk and "lots of lemongrass" to keep the dish solidly grounded in Vietnamese flavors.
Steamed chicken dumplings from Golden Saigon.
But Mama's not afraid to incorporate ingredients totally foreign to Vietnamese cuisine — like butter. Traditional Vietnamese cooking relies on a variety of different oils rather than butter, but Mama uses that ingredient in a lemongrass-butter sauce served with chicken or shrimp, Van notes. Mama's favorite dish on her menu, though, is pho. "It’s the dish that unites everyone together," she says. "No matter the occasion, every Vietnamese family unites with a pot of pho waiting to be served. And family is the main focus of this restaurant."
In fact, Mama adds, the strong relationship with her customers has been the surprising thing about her career as a restaurateur — as well as her proudest achievement. "In the past 24 years, it always amazes us the compassion our customers have towards us and the establishment. To be on a first-name basis with the majority of our customers is not a typical restaurant environment," she says. "We are so grateful for all of their generosity."
Confirms Van: "A lot of Mama's customers say they feel like they’re not dining in a restaurant. It’s like going to an auntie’s house where she says, 'Sit down, sit down. We’re going to make you some food!'"
Golden Saigon is located at 2648 South Parker Road in Aurora and is open from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, visit goldensaigon.com.