by Len Lear
Chuong Le, 35, has a very calm, low-key, soft-spoken exterior, but his record in business bespeaks a python intensity. He has a clear and fearless eye for the mountain in the distance. He came to the U.S. from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam 14 years ago and earned an associate’s degree from Camden County Community College and then a degree in business administration from Temple University, which took six years because he was also working full-time during the entire six years. (While in Vietnam, Le had gone to college to study industrial engineering.)
But somewhere along the line he took a detour into the restaurant world and probably figured you can’t fight the zeitgeist. Like so many other Asian cuisine pioneers in the Philadelphia area, Le and his partners, Duy (“Jimmy”) Vo and Hung Nguyen, have elevated Vietnamese street food into a whole new galaxy, shimmering with Continental and Chinese sauces and techniques.
In early August of this year, the three partners opened Saigon Noodle Bar, which is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., at the Market at the Fareway, which has undergone a stunning upgrade since it was called the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market, and it’s clear that Vietnamese street food is the trio’s cuisine true north. As they might say in the south, if the Saigon Noodle Bar is not producing some of the best food around, then Wednesday ain’t trash pickup day.
But there are no higher cards in their deck of dishes than the sublime, zephyrlight chicken soup with vegetables that is truly a nectar of the gods ($9.95). Another jewel is the pho Tom with shrimp ($11.95). I predict that diners who taste this dish will be so mesmerized that they will actually stop texting. And even if I threw compliments around like manhole covers, I would still rave about the light, crispy spring rolls ($4.95).
“Their chicken noodle soup is so good,” said Maurice Lavasani, of Shundeez, the long-time Mediterranean foods outlet at the other end of the market. “Everything is fresh. Delicious broth with fresh mint on the side. And Chuong is a very nice guy and very knowledgeable.” (I consider Maurice an expert witness when it comes to food. He could testify in court about food without taking the oath. He formerly owned Shundeez restaurant at the top of the Hill, which earned a rave review from the Inquirer critic, Craig LaBan.)
“We never had a crowd like this before. Ron Pete (the owner of the Market at the Fareway) has put us on the map. Beer, pizza, outdoor dining, ping pong, a great place to hang out, all the new flowers and plants. Now we have lots of neighbors and families. It’s never noisy. There are more young people than ever before.”
Chuong Le, who still has one brother in Vietnam but parents who are here and one brother in Canada, sharpened his skills at two Vietnamese restaurants in South Philly over six years as a server and manager. He took English language courses in Vietnam from the sixth grade on. “The college courses help the thinking process,” he said, “but to succeed, you have to take risks. I learned communication skills at the South Philly restaurants.
“Also, my family had a restaurant in Vietnam since 1992. I was washing dishes at first. I did not cook, but I tasted the food and know the food. I always liked talking to customers and hearing their stories. I knew I could never do the 9 to 5 thing. You must have luck to succeed, but you mostly have to work really hard.”
Before walking out on the restaurant high wire, Chuong started a staffing business (employment agency) with his father, Minh Le, in 2013 that is still extant. In 2015, Le took over Dave’s Pizza in Glenolden, Delaware County, next to a Walmart. Le still owns the property, but he plans to convert it soon into a taco place. “The problem is that people see Asians running a pizza place, and it messes with their perception. They do not expect to see Asians running a pizza place, even though the food is the same.”
In 2016, Le also took over a Vietnamese restaurant on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philly and renamed it Pho Saigon. His business partner is the woman who previously employed him at the South Philly restaurant mentioned earlier. “Nobody outside of the neighborhood seems to knows about the Northeast dining scene,” said Le. “That’s why Mayor Kenney came to visit us recently.” (See photo accompanying article.)
Le’s Chestnut Hill location was formerly an oyster/seafood place. “My ideal location would be in center city or South Philly,” he said, “but there are not many available spaces, and they have no parking, which is a must … I always want partners because I want to help others become owners. Most Vietnamese are workers, but I want them to be owners. I want every ethnic group to know about Vietnamese food. I tell my friends: you want to go into business? I will help you. I want to build a network for us to be successful in the U.S.”
Le’s family did well in Vietnam. His father was a chemistry teacher, and his mother was a school principal, “but the more you know there, the more you want to leave … I want everyone to try our food. If you understand a people’s food, you understand their culture.”
Vietnamese food has been strongly influenced by both Chinese and French cuisines. The mainstream culinary traditions in all three regions of Vietnam share some fundamental features: Most meats are only briefly cooked, and vegetables are generally eaten fresh; if they are cooked, they are boiled or only quickly stir-fried. Herbs and vegetables are essential to many Vietnamese dishes and are often abundantly used. The textures are usually crisp with soft, watery with crunchy and delicate with rough. Broths or soup-based dishes are common in all three regions, and the condiments accompanying Vietnamese meals are usually colorful and arranged in an eye-OK manner.
To view the Saigon Noodle Bar menu, visit www.marketatthefareway.com/saigon-noodle-bar. For more information, call 267-269- 7228.