City Heights Bites: Minh Ký
Walk around any hard-working neighborhood, and you’ll find a place that you can rely on for fast, cheap, and delicious comfort food. For the past 17 years, that role has been filled by Phát Vương and his wife Kim Đặng, who own Minh Ký.
As an immigrant from Saigon, Vương started as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant in Horton Plaza, working his way up to executive chef before he decided he wanted to open a restaurant that would meet people at the price point they were at in his own neighborhood of City Heights.
So he bought Minh Ký, deciding to continue to work with Chinese food, and focusing on dishes like hand-made wonton noodles, served quickly, to a hungry community on the go.
His daughter, Sandy Tobin, saw where her father was coming from while growing up in the restaurant.
“We didn’t grow up with a lot of money. And when he was struggling, he was a single dad for a while, he had three jobs and trying to feed me and my sister. It was really difficult for him. He found places like Minh Ký where food was affordable,” she said. “He wanted to bring really good quality homemade food but keep it at an affordable price.”
Business ground to a halt last spring, as the pandemic shut down restaurants. Overnight, the business that had kept long-time residents of City Heights fed had to shut down.
“For Minh Ký, it was very difficult in the beginning," Tobin said. "Not only are my parents older, but their staff is older, and their clientele is older. They made it a priority to keep everyone safe.”
Like other restaurants, they shifted to full take-out but missed the business from the quick-shuffling sit-down experience, which fit the busy schedules of their customers. Lucky for them, wonton soup can easily be reheated, and their customers fell back on the old favorite during these troubled times.
With a few loans from the federal government and other smaller grants, Minh Ký is still on its feet as it emerges from the pandemic.
“Everyone is still really excited to see us here and walking through the doors. It’s just been very fun to see everyone come back and enjoy a meal with us. It’s weird with the face masks on, we’re not seeing all the smiles that we’re used to seeing and are known for,” Tobin said. “We’ve been around for so long, we’ve had kids that are bringing their girlfriends in or their wives in.”
It doesn’t stick out and it’s not flashy, but restaurants like Minh Ký are keeping the community fed. Tobin has opened her own restaurant in Kearny Mesa, Dumpling Inn, but her family’s food and ethic remain rooted in City Heights.
“That’s what makes City Heights, City Heights, it’s these businesses that are not only independently owned by small families and not backed by some big corporation, but that we’ve been here for so long," she said. "We are what the culture here is.”