One family's struggle becomes an authentic Vietnamese trifecta
East (Asia), meet West. West (Philly), meet East. The Lai family brought a taste of Vietnam to Baltimore Avenue, and our stomachs continue to reap the benefits. The Lai family opened Fu–Wah Mini Market 31 years ago. A neighborhood staple in West Philadelphia, the Market is also proof that the American dream is possible.
Mom and Pop Operation
After South Vietnam fell to the communist North, Nhu Lai, the patriarch of the family, tried to get the Lais out of the country, but was caught by the government and arrested. After months in a Vietnamese labor camp and then a Malayasian refugee camp, the Red Cross helped the Lai family reunite with relatives in Philadelphia.
The family of 10 was crammed into an apartment in West Philadelphia at 45th and Baltimore. It was a poor neighborhood, but one rich with Vietnamese people and culture.
Determined to become economically self–sufficient, Nhu and some of his sons immediately took jobs as dishwashers in various Chinese restaurants, and his wife, Thuyen, worked in a sewing factory in Chinatown. In the summers, the family went to South Jersey to pick blueberries.
Nhu traveled to New York City on the weekends to bring Vietnamese foods and products back to Philadelphia for his family and neighbors. After saving up their earnings for five years and accumulating contacts in New York, the Lais decided to open a grocery store, supplying the growing Asian community with food from their home countries.
And so, in 1982, the first Lai family business was born: Fu–Wah, located just two blocks west of the Lai’s jam–packed apartment. Thuyen was accustomed to cooking for her big family, so she figured that she might as well cook for a restaurant. In 1984, the family’s second business was born: Vietnam Restaurant, a 28–seat “hole in the wall” in Chinatown. Nhu and Thuyen worked seven days a week to keep the market and the restaurant running.
The 2nd Generation Takes Over
Since then, Benny, their son, has remodeled and expanded Vietnam Restaurant, which has since won many awards from Philadelphia Magazine and Philadelphia Weekly. What’s Benny’s trick? “In the restaurant business you need to have three things: the food, the service and the atmosphere; if you have all three, and they work well, you’ll be successful,” he says.
A customer gave Benny his Amer ican name when the family first opened the restaurant in Chinatown. When I asked what his Vietnamese name was, Benny spelled it for me in a very American fashion, “Thuan: ‘T’ as in Tom, ‘H’ as in horse, ‘U’ as in uncle’, ‘A’ as in apple, ‘N’ as in Nancy.” In 2008, Benny opened a third restaurant called Vietnam Café, just around the corner from Fu–Wah.
Benny Lai considers himself “a regular Philadelphia guy” but found an extraordinary way to share his rich Vietnamese traditions with the city. And those who visit the Lai’s restaurants and market are lucky to savor truly authentic Vietnamese food.