In this week’s feature, we head to Mong Thu Cafe on Hyde Street (between Eddy & Turk Street), a Vietnamese cafe that has been around for twenty-five years, run by Kim Lien Nguyen and her daughters.
We chatted with Linh, one of Kim’s four daughters. She spoke on behalf of her mom whose first language is Vietnamese. Linh manages the day-to-day logistics of running the restaurant for her mom, on top of having a full-time job, and raising her young son. Her younger sister, Michelle also manages all the signage and social media.
When talking about her mom, Linh speaks with admiration. Her mom is beyond strong. She tells us about the year they immigrated here: “Back in 1983, my mom got all three of us sisters to the United States. We traveled here by boat. It was just her with the three daughters—ages six, four, and two years old at that time. She left with basically no possessions and not sure what would happen on the journey.” As refugees, they stayed in the Philipines for six months, before meeting up with Linh’s father and uncle who had already left for San Francisco before the rest of the family. Luckily, they were able to safely make it to San Francisco, and the motherly courage it demonstrated was something that has always stuck with Linh and her sisters.
Linh adds that another one of her mom’s strengths is her natural tendency to go with the flow—to focus in on what needs to be done right now, to prioritize that day and the next step, to avoid getting overwhelmed by a sometimes daunting bigger picture.
This strategy is one that has served Kim well as they faced challenges in the past, as well as now with Covid19’s effect restaurants across San Francisco. They are figuring out how to make it work. Linh adds that Mong Thu Cafe is her parents’ only source of income—as far as they are concerned, closing is not an option.
In the Tenderloin, Linh and her family have found community and the comfort of Vietnamese culture.
My mom enjoys people enjoying her food. She makes really great food that’s affordable and made fresh daily. She really is a community person. She knows everyone that comes in. She shops at the local grocery stores—a lot of them are run by Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants.
When thinking about how others perceive the Tenderloin, Linh says, “It’s really not as scary as people think it is. There are a lot of homeless people but not a lot of troublemakers. I grew up in the Tenderloin before we moved to the projects between Portrero and Bayview. There were a lot of times when you have to walk in the streets because the sidewalks were too crowded with tents…lately, this has been getting better.”
She adds that one perk of being in the Tenderloin is being able to find the food she loves. “I like being able to get snacks and stuff you can’t get anywhere else. Being able to easily find cafes with Vietnamese coffee and affordable bahn mi. You can get something under $10 you know will it will be really good.”
Linh’s favorite dish her mom makes is the Bun rieu – crab based noodle tofu, pork, crab patty, which is usually displayed on their “Specials” board. Linh also recommends Bun mang ga, a noodle soup with chicken or duck, in a bamboo base soup, but basically you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.
Mong Thu Cafe, 248 Hyde Street
Open: Tuesday – Sunday, 7am -4pm
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