You know that sinking feeling after making an unplanned and potentially reckless purchase? When you wake up (or sober up) the next day worried about what your family and friends (not to mention that little voice in your head) will almost certainly have to say about the fact that you ordered a hundred little top hats. shape for your pet frog or a shower curtain adorned with Nic Cage’s face?
Thanh Thi Le Nguyen can crown your story. Just five years after immigrating to the United States from her native Vietnam, Thanh (known universally as Mama Le) bought what was, at the time, a red sauce Italian restaurant — without consulting her family. “We’re a small family business,” Mama explains, “and buying this restaurant meant giving away all of our savings.”
Twenty-seven years later, golden saigonat 2648 South Parker Road in Aurora, is holding firm, and Mama is still cooking up dishes not often found at other Vietnamese restaurants.
Van Le, Mama’s daughter, was only ten years old when her mother came home with the news that she had bought a “little little hole in the wall”, says Van, but she still remembers the family reaction. “We didn’t have a lot of money, and the question was, are we buying a house or a restaurant? [Mom decided], let’s establish something that we can always build on. It was a huge surprise. The reaction was… mixed,” she laughs.
All of Mama Le’s six children grew up working in Golden Saigon after school; Van recalls her older siblings pulling a blatant bait and switch in order to coerce her into less desirable kitchen duties. “They were helping out at the front, tending buses and doing other important things,” she says, “and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s really fun. Come peel that carrot. You think it’s one or two, but then they pull out a fifty pound bag of carrots.”
Now Van and his brother Toan Le are an integral part of the daily operations of Golden Saigon – Van cooks alongside his mother in the kitchen and Toan shows up every night after his day job as an accountant to run the front of the house. home. “He’s kind of like our mascot,” Van jokes, continuing with a conspiratorial aside: “I’m his sister, I can tell.”
A standout dish from the Golden Saigon menu is Mama Le’s curry. According to Van, the lamb version is probably the restaurant’s most popular starter, although she notes that overall the curry – with other choices of chicken, beef, pork, prawns, lamb or tofu for a vegan version – is the restaurant’s favorite dish. “Curry is what brings everyone back,” she says. “Vietnam is not known for curry, but [Mama’s] the recipe is so interesting because we don’t use the green or red curry that Thai people use. We use Indian Madras curry powder. There’s an area in Vietnam where Indians would trade the spice, and that’s where she learned to make yellow curry.” Mama adds her version with coconut milk and “lots of lemongrass to keep the dish firmly rooted in Vietnamese flavors.
But mom isn’t afraid to incorporate ingredients that are totally foreign to Vietnamese cooking, like butter. Traditional Vietnamese cooking relies on a variety of different oils rather than butter, but Mama uses this ingredient in a lemongrass butter sauce served with chicken or shrimp, Van notes. Mom’s favorite dish on her menu, however, is pho. “It’s the dish that unites everyone,” she says. “No matter the occasion, every Vietnamese family comes together with a pot of pho waiting to be served. And family is the main focus of this restaurant.”
In fact, adds Mama, the strong relationship with her customers has been the most surprising thing about her restaurant career, as well as her greatest pride. “Over the past 24 years, we have always been amazed at the compassion our customers have for us and for the establishment. Being by their first name with the majority of our customers is not a typical restaurant environment,” says -she. “We are very grateful for all their generosity.”
Van agrees: “A lot of Mama’s customers say it feels like they’re not having dinner at a restaurant. It’s like going to an aunt’s house where she says, ‘Sit down, sit down. We’re going to cook you to eat ! ‘”
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.