From Royalists to Restaurateurs

by Kathy Nguyen
(Photos by Kathy Nguyen)

Behind every family recipe is a good story. Take for example the saga of the An family, which owns the wildly popular Crustacean restaurants in San Francisco and Beverly Hills. Crustacean is famous for its giant roast crabs and garlic noodles, made from secret family recipes. Yet the restaurant began as a tiny deli on the foggy banks of the outer Sunset near Ocean Beach. The family matriarch, Diana An, purchased the deli on a whim during a trip to San Francisco in 1971. When Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, the Ans, descendants of Vietnamese royalty, lost everything. Like thousands of others, they were forced to flee the country. The entire family, from grandparents to grandchildren, ended up settling in a one-bedroom apartment near the deli, their only remaining possession. With a lot of hard work and imagination, the Ans transformed the deli, a counter top with 20 stools, into a popular family restaurant named Thanh Long, meaning green dragon -- a symbol of good luck and prosperity.

From its humble origins in the Sunset, Thanh Long has grown into a multi-million dollar corporation incorporating three restaurants and an expanding import-export enterprise. Three generations of An women anchor the family business: founder Diana, her daughter-in-law Helene, who is executive chef, and Helene's three daughters, Hannah, Elizabeth and Monique. As proprietors of the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco offering signature Euro-Asian cuisine, the Ans are considered the pioneers of Asian fusion cooking. Crustacean is also one of the first Asian restaurants to break into the mainstream. Hannah An, 35, attributes the company's growth to marketing strategies geared toward diverse communities.

"We understand the market and don't limit ourselves," she says. "I think we've been able to break through barriers because we don't cater exclusively to the Vietnamese community." She adds, "Although we're a family business, we have a corporate structure and do things according to solid business principles."

The eldest of five daughters, Hannah holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California at Davis and an M.B.A. from Golden Gate University. She and her husband, Danny Vu, are the brains behind the restaurants' business planning and corporate structure. Her sister Elizabeth is the creative director and head of marketing and public relations. Monique does the accounting and is in charge of food and beverages. "We have a strong sense of family unity, and because we came from difficult circumstances, it was our duty to help out the family," says Hannah. "But none of us was forced into the restaurant business. My sisters and I have all explored different venues and pursued separate careers, and this is what we've come back to. We were given a choice, but if we had continued to work individually, we wouldn't be here today."

Hannah An

For Diana and Helene An, the plunge into the business world was not so much a choice, but a twist of fate. After all, Diana and Helene were privileged women raised in the bosom of prominent families. Before coming to the United States, they led sheltered lives, managing the servants and maintaining domestic harmony in a large household dominated by their husbands. But when the family lost all its worldly possessions and had to start over, it was left to the An women to take the helm and reinvent themselves. The men, despondent over their loss of power and status, were not interested in working in the service industry. Yet the Ans will tell you that throughout Vietnam's history, it is axiomatic that women rise to the occasion in difficult times. The An women hail from a long tradition of leading female figures: the aristocratic Truong sisters who defended the country against Chinese invaders, the beloved woman warrior Lady Trieu, and Vietnam’s most famous exile and literary heroine, Kieu.

Helene, whose family ruled over Tuyen Quang province in north Vietnam for centuries, was introduced to the world of haute cuisine long before she became a restaurateur in the United States. Her father, the vice-consul to the king, often hosted large banquets for visiting dignitaries and international guests. To entertain their guests, Helene's family employed three cooks --Vietnamese, French and Chinese respectively -- each specializing in his native cuisine. Helene draws much of the inspiration for her culinary creations from them. Growing up in a privileged household in which she learned to plan exquisite menus for discerning guests prepared her for a career in the restaurant business. While the family cooks were her mentors in the kitchen, Helene's mother-in-law taught her the art of entertaining, setting her on the path to becoming a chef and hostess.

Over the years, Helene has honed traditional family recipes to perfection, turning them into her own signature dishes: whole crab roasted with garlic, butter and spices; drunken crab simmered in a broth of three wines, cracked black pepper and scallions; and tamarind crab in a sweet-and-sour sauce of tomatoes, fresh dill, chili and fresh herbs. Other favorites include charbroiled royal tiger prawns served with An's special garlic noodles, and angel hair pasta with Maine lobster flambéed in a delectable brandy and ginger-basil sauce. Helene's ravioli consists of shrimp, minced garlic and fennel wrapped inside delicate rice crepes in a soy and sesame white wine and butter emulsion. All the dishes reflect Helene's diverse culinary roots. But her family's treasured crab recipes, passed down through the generations, are her most prized possession. To safeguard this inheritance, which she considers the secret of her restaurants' success, Helene created her own "secret kitchen." The secret kitchen is a second kitchen within each restaurant, sealed off to everyone but the An family.

"We left Vietnam with nothing. I saw that my restaurant had a good chance to succeed, and I realized that I had to do something to guard the recipes for my children. The secret kitchen has become my daughters' inheritance," says Helene, 60. "No one sees how we prepare the roast crab and garlic noodles. Employees can't take the recipes elsewhere."

Whatever their methods, the Ans' creativity and teamwork have brought them phenomenal success. By 1991, Thanh Long had expanded to140 seats, and in 1997, the family remodeled the entire restaurant, adding a 75-seat banquet room. Hannah sees the renovation as a way of revitalizing the original source of her family's culinary success.

"It's a wonderful chance to do homage to where it all started 29 years ago," she says.

Thanh Long is still a down-to-earth family restaurant, as opposed to its more glamorous sister establishment in Beverly Hills. Although Jimmy Buffet has been coming here for the last 20 years and Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford have stopped by, "It's still one of the best-kept secrets in town," says Hannah.

In 1991 the Ans opened Crustacean on Polk Street, offering elegant dining in a contemporary setting with patio seating and a full-bar. Crustacean Beverly Hills, which opened in 1996, has a French Colonial atmosphere with footbridges connecting wide verandahs and lush bamboo gardens. Gentle tropical breezes generated by overhead ceiling fans nostalgically evoke colonial ambience. Carved teakwood furniture upholstered in silk brocade, with linen-covered rattan tables, recreate the elegance of prewar Saigon circa 1930. One of the restaurant's highlights is an 80-foot serpentine aquarium sunk into the floor and filled with tropical fish and coral, giving visitors the illusion of walking on water. Crustacean's dramatic atmosphere and refined East-West cuisine quickly became the toast of Tinsel Town and a place to hobnob with everyone on Hollywood's A-list, from Steven Spielberg, Eddie Murphy, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening to Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Jaida Plunkett. Esquire magazine named Crustacean one of the best new restaurants of 1997. Crustacean has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, People magazine, Travel & Leisure, USA Today, CNN and Entertainment Tonight. In 1999, the Ans received the Jacqueline Kennedy Women of Achievement Award.

Quite apart from dishing up an average of 300 crabs a night per restaurant, the Ans are actively involved in their communities. Crustacean Beverly Hills doles out $156,000 annually to local organizations. But despite their ties to Southern California, home is still where the heart is. In 2001, the Ans plan to open a new flagship restaurant in Union Square -- their most ambitious project to date. The 30,000-square-foot, multi-level restaurant will also serve as a showcase to launch their new product lines, including custom-designed furniture and signature dining ware. The new restaurant will combine Old World and New World concepts with a French Colonial theme.

"Our ideal goal is to create an elegant lifestyle that hearkens back to a bygone era, but with modern conveniences," says Hannah.

With their innovative approach to dining and entertainment, the Ans offer a feast to satisfy even the most regal palates.

Thanh Long
4101 Judah Street, San Francisco, CA (415) 665-1146

Crustacean San Francisco
1475 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA (415) 776-2722

Crustacean Beverly Hills
9646 Little Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA (310) 205-8990

Whole Dungeness crab roasted with garlic, salt, cracked black pepper and a light butter sauce (CLICK FOR LARGE PHOTO)
Chilean sea bass steamed in ginger, scallion and citrus infusion
Shaken beef flambeed medium rare and served au jus on a bed of potatoes, mixed greens and cherry tomatoes
Ahi tuna over a bed of arugula and mixed greens with chile plum sauce
Butterflied royal tiger prawns served with An's special garlic noodles
The assembled royal feast