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City Heights Bites: Thanh Tinh Chay

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For long-standing businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal. One new City Heights restaurant that is not only trying to survive, but thrive, as it shakes off losses from the past year.

Speaker 1: 00:00 For longstanding businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal, but for restaurants that were just starting out surviving has been nearly impossible. A KPBS series as city Heights bytes has been checking in on restaurants in that neighborhood today. KPBS reporter max Rivlin Nadler looks at one city Heights restaurant that is not only trying to survive, but thrive as it shakes off losses from the past year.

Speaker 2: 00:27 Ingenuity can not only help a business survive the worst climate for restaurants in recent history. It can also be delicious when it's in the hands of trained naan and her co-conspirators at tun. Dungi a Vietnamese restaurant that serves only vegan and vegetarian fare.

Speaker 3: 00:46 As you can see around here, the Vietnamese traditional one, it usually come with the meat for like, they don't provide much of the option for vegetarian and vegan options.

Speaker 2: 00:58 The restaurant opened right before the pandemic quickly amassing regulars, who then switched over to pickup and delivery. Once indoor dining had to shut down that gave the owner and workers that the restaurant more time to perfect recipes, not trying to just replicate standard Vietnamese dishes, but create their own versions. Hinting on creative uses of soy tofu and other vegetables substitutes take this bond me, for instance, they not only make their own bread every day. They make their own quote unquote meat

Speaker 3: 01:33 For the segue. It's really popular because we combine two up there. The protein in here, one of the barbecue pork, the other one we call is [inaudible] like the slide one you can see right here. And then the other one [inaudible] barbecue.

Speaker 2: 01:48 Non who immigrated from Vietnam a decade ago is that people looking for Vietnamese food without meat didn't have any options in San Diego. Now they have one of the most cutting edge culinary experiences in city Heights, giving even those who grew up eating traditional Vietnamese food, a pleasant surprise. At first,

Speaker 3: 02:07 They really stopped because like it's taste, it's not laid the meat one. You know, the flavor of the product

Speaker 2: 02:13 Customers are free to choose a variety of sides and meat substitutes to supplement dishes they can make at home

Speaker 3: 02:20 The body. They don't have enough time to like weigh for a little bit to make the full. So they check on the, on the rush and they just wrapped some of the items and then just go home and then hit it off.

Speaker 2: 02:32 Well, business is still way down from before the pandemic non hopes that his indoor dining resumed this week in the restaurant, there will be way more regulars looking for food that pushes boundaries while still feeling very much at home in the dynamic food scene of city Heights

Speaker 1: 02:49 And journey me is KPBS reporter max Revlin Nadler and max welcome. Good to be here. It might've been risky to open a vegan Vietnamese restaurant even without the pandemic. So what inspired the owners to take that chance?

Speaker 4: 03:04 They really saw an opening in the market that there was no vegetarian or vegan options for people in city Heights kind of on the whole. And that Vietnamese food itself really went itself to, um, being vegan or vegetarian. And that in Vietnam itself, there are a ton of places that offer this type of food, but none so far in city Heights. And I think that might just have to do with the fact that a lot of Americans expect Vietnamese food to contain meat in it. Uh, so, so they saw an opening and they went for it

Speaker 1: 03:35 Profiled other restaurants in this city Heights bites series, remind us about a restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard called min key. What's their story. So

Speaker 4: 03:44 They were started by a Vietnamese family as well, but it was Chinese food because the patriarch of the family, the father, he was a cook at Horton Plaza for many years at a Chinese food place there. And then decided that he wanted to open a restaurant in city Heights that met people at the price point that they were at. Um, and so he took the Chinese food that he was cooking and selling for a lot more at Horton Plaza and sold it for much more affordable prices in city Heights. And, and their specialties are really kind of comfort food, uh, noodle dishes, Wong, Tong, soup, things like that, that people can get cheaply, that they could take home, that they could reheat. And they've been there for more than 20, 25 years at this point. So I thought it was really important to kind of profile them because they were really foundational to this entire neighborhood. And in fact, uh, the daughter, um, has now gone into business herself. She runs dumpling in and Kearny Mesa. So it's from humble beginnings comes this, you know, new culinary empire and

Speaker 1: 04:46 You profiled one of the first Ethiopian restaurants in this city. Now there are quite a few, one of the first ones was called red sea on 47th and university. How have they stayed in business despite the competition that's come up?

Speaker 4: 04:59 Yeah. I mean, one thing that they really stress at the place is how fresh everything is. I was able to join them in the kitchen. And, um, basically I got to see everything go from scratch to, um, the table and played it on in JIRA and really like ready to eat 10 minutes after the cooking began to make it. So nothing is just sitting there. Everything is ready to be cooked together and, and they're not reheating or using the chef microwave or anything like that. On top of that, it's, it's a classic story in city Heights where you're able to not only build a reputation for good food, but like keep your regulars coming back where people have a real vested interest in making sure that this restaurant not only sticks around, but, but does so because they can't imagine not having a next birthday party or graduation party there and having to drive by it and seeing it go out of business. All these

Speaker 1: 05:52 Small family owned restaurants you're reporting on in city Heights have been through a very tough time during the pandemic, but they all have kind of similar stories of survival. How have they managed

Speaker 4: 06:04 Everyone I've profiled so far has all benefited from the PPP loan program by the federal government, uh, that really kept these businesses alive. Not every business that took that money was able to, to make it, but without it, certainly none of these would have, they're still behind the eight ball. A lot of these places they're still building back up business. They're still deeply in debt, but for the time being, they are being kept afloat and it was thanks to these programs made possible by the government.

Speaker 1: 06:31 Why did you want to profile restaurants in city Heights bites? What led you to this series?

Speaker 4: 06:37 I want it to visit these standing places in city Heights and some of the newer spaces that had developed a community based on eating inside and together and to see how they've done and how they were able to not only survive, but kind of thrive in these, you know, um, hybrid conditions of being both, you know, a delivery service as well as trying to do at some outdoor dining limited contained indoor dining situations like that.

Speaker 1: 07:01 And obviously there are some perks involved. I'm sure that you sampled the food.

Speaker 4: 07:06 Yeah. I mean, why do you think I'm doing this?

Speaker 5: 07:10 How important

Speaker 1: 07:11 Do you think these restaurants are to the identity of city Heights?

Speaker 4: 07:15 I think for the most part, these are really interesting stable footholds for families who had just come to America to enter the middle class and to not only, um, you know, find stability for their families, but to create other spaces and other opportunities, right? A lot of these business owners work with other, um, new immigrants to help them get started on their own businesses. They form associations, they work together, they share knowledge. I think this is a really important part of city Heights. And, and even if it's not necessarily formal in how each group is lifting each other up the competition, and basically the, the collaboration that does go on between these restaurants is super important. What

Speaker 1: 08:04 Type of restaurant are you going to be profiling next?

Speaker 4: 08:06 I would really like to see, uh, some more suggestions because really I generated it by just asking people around the neighborhood when I was doing interviews on other stories and going online and seeing what people liked. So if people want to see their favorite place profiled, they can reach out to me on Twitter at max Roland Nadler. And let me know what restaurant in city Heights. They want to see a profile, this part of city Heights bites.

Speaker 1: 08:34 Terrific. I've been speaking with KPBS reporter max Revlin Nadler. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Speaker 6: 08:46 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.