Of Dining, the American Dream and Places in the Heart

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Apologies for missing last week's Walk the Wok. Hope everyone has been eating well and has discovered something tasty since the last time we rendezvoused.

During my MIA time, I've been revisiting past blog-subject restaurants with the intention of doing updates. I stopped in at Naga Thai to see if the restaurant had repaired its salt issues (it hasn't), experienced the catering side of Filipiniana Bake Shop and Café, sampled the new weekend brunch menu at Lumi (pho, bottomless mimosas, and breakfast empandas) and investigated the new ownership over at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Arlington, Le's Fire Pot.

What was going to be a straightforward assessment of these restaurants veered off course because of a personal loss I experienced last week.

The very first thing I noticed when walking into both Filipiniana and Le's Fire Pot was small children running around the restaurants or coloring in the corners of the dining rooms. Because there weren't any other diners at both restaurants when I visited, it wasn't difficult to decipher that these were either the children or relatives of the restaurant owners. Even at Uptown's Lumi, it isn't unlikely that the first sight I see walking up to the restaurant is owner Susie Bui's father and mother gardening flowers or building a patio deck.

It struck me that whatever the location -- from the humble strip mall settings of Bedford and Arlington to the flashier accommodations of McKinney Avenue -- the Asian restaurant is still very much a family affair. Maybe it's my naivete, but I have always pictured the Asian family-run restaurant as a thing of the '80s: Asian immigrants flocking to the States and opening up the only business that made sense to them in order to give their offspring a better future. As my peers grew up to become doctors, lawyers and pharmacists, I was always in career limbo. I felt utterly like I was letting my blue-collar parents down for all the hours they had spent in a hot kitchen and kissing up to unreasonable diners. All I knew was food, and I all I ever wanted was to open up my own restaurant. Like most children, I thought I was so much smarter than my parents, and I didn't realize how hard it all actually was. Hence my shock when I see my generation of Asians jumping back into the restaurant business.

From my friend Song, who owns Sushi Star, to my high school mate Christine Tran, whose family owns the Sushi Axiom empire, they all agree on one thing: The restaurant business is a backbreaking but highly addictive labor of love. They always speak of how tired they are and how many hours they just spent on their feet, but ask them what their plans are, and it almost always runs along the lines of "...another restaurant." My parents forbade me to follow in their footsteps, and to this day I can't even mention the word "restaurant" to my dad. The story of Joseph Lee surely would set my father's head shaking.

A transplant from New Orleans, Lee left a cush position in corporate America to take over the Vietnamese cult-favorite, Le's Fire Pot. He has always dreamed of having his own restaurant, and despite living in Uptown Dallas, drives to Arlington every day because he felt Le's Fire Pot was something special and could be his first project. Also, his best friends were the former sole owners of the exalted, yet business-plagued, buffet. After Lee took a look at the books, he knew his friends' restaurant wouldn't be open for much longer if business continued the same way. He came in as a partner and investor, dissecting the menu and slathering the walls with fresh paint. Then, they waited. Lee hoped word of mouth, a healthier menu, happy hour prices between the hours of 5-7 p.m., and a sleeker dining room would bring in crowds. And while the restaurant can still best be described as "struggling," months later, larger groups are beginning to trickle in, birthday parties are being booked, and catering services are being requested. Lee remains optimistic.

He insists that he is happier no longer "chasing the money, but following his heart." Despite the optimism, his grasp of reality is unclouded. After checking on me throughout dinner, Lee admitted that he knew who I was and why I was there. Because he was so damned earnest and because I am a softie when it comes to struggling family restaurants, I conceded that there were some changes about which I wasn't thrilled.

The noodle bar with the pho is gone. Pho is no longer even a part of the buffet. Instead, there was a bun rieu (tomato and shellfish based vermicelli) that was a bit too much tomato, not enough shellfish. The many variations of goi, or Vietnamese salad, are gone. Granted, I showed up on a weekday at 5 p.m., but I still found the scanty display of spring rolls and banh cuon depressing. The hot pot buffet set up is now gone. I you order a hot pot, it is still all you can eat, but it's brought out from the kitchen. Seeing as how I had a problem in the first place with raw beef and fish being protected only by a sneeze guard, I don't really mind this. What I do mind is that a part of the greatness of the old Le's Fire Pot was how abundant everything looked. Lush greens, food constantly replenished and variety to last for days was part of the old appeal.

While I do appreciate the removal of the plasma televisions with its constant loop of Paris by Night (ask a Vietnamese friend) and the cleaner aesthetic of the buffet line, this new ownership team has some work cut out for themselves. Lee's insistence that the original cooks are still in the kitchen left me a bit suspicious. For instance, the desserts, which used to be phenomenal even after a gut-busting meal, were dull and tasted like they had been out since the night before. Spring rolls, which used to be a highlight at the old Le's Fire Pot, were bizarrely mushy. Not everything was disappointing, however, and the standouts of the renovated buffet are the hot foods selection. Crispy calamari, sautéed squid, chicken wings and various stir-fry dishes are very good and much improved. Lee's focus for the menu was to offer healthier Vietnamese fare with the use of leaner meats and less fish sauce. For the most part, his vision is executed successfully, although a few dishes, like the canh chua (a sweet and sour soup) and ca kho (caramelized braised catfish), were much too sweet.

Regardless, Lee and his partners are in it for the long haul and understand that they have revisions to make. To them, life still is good when following one's heart, and they have the happy playful offspring around to remind them of why they do it all in the first place.

I witnessed a mirror atmosphere when I visited a very different restaurant on the other side of town later that weekend. For the Manny Pacquiao/Antonio Margarito fight, I felt it only appropriate to have our watching party catered by the Filipino go-to in DFW, Filipiniana. The small restaurant had been catering all of Pacquiao's and his entourage's meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) for the whole week. For anyone who knows anything about Pacquiao, this is no small feat. While Ms. June, the proprietor/chef of Filipiniana, had closed most of her shop to handle this massive undertaking, she was kind enough to make our party's food too.

When I went to pick up the order, there was the familiar sight of children playing in an empty dining room. The kitchen, however, was chaos. Joining June in the cooking duties was a collection of family, friends, cousins, grandparents, etc. While watching everyone fry, wrap and pack I couldn't help but think about the parties my parents' small family restaurant once catered. My little brother and I would be in the dining room throwing impromptu song and dance numbers to entertain the guests, while a constant fixture in the kitchen would be my grandmother, doing whatever sous chef duties she could to help unease the load.

After a long bout with cancer, my grandmother passed away last week on my 30th birthday. Much of my guilt stems from the fact that after how hard my parents and grandparents worked to give me a better future, I am still somewhat confused about my path in life. I'm still not Asian enough. My name isn't followed with an MD. After years of training and lessons, I'm still just another struggling actress trudging from one furniture commercial audition to another with nothing to show for it. Am I being sentimental? Yes. But there's a reason why I couldn't exactly jump into writing a straightforward pho or sandwich blog last week.

What affects me most about seeing Susie's parents building a deck, or Lee leaving the corporate life to follow his dreams and help his friends, or Ms. June and her family slaving away in the kitchen after a six-day bender is remembering the last words my grandmother ever spoke to me as I left her for the airport last month.

She hadn't been able to speak a lot during my visit, but she mustered up these few words: "Marry and have a child."

Those last words weren't about the status of my career. They weren't about how I had disappointed her. From a woman who during my whole life was the antithesis of sentimental and schmaltzy, those words were the last thing I ever expected to hear from her mouth. Those words were about family and its impact on happiness, life and success. It's why it isn't taboo for Asian kids to live at home for as long as they want, and it is why there will always be the allure for Asians to jump back into the restaurant business. Everything about our culture revolves around family, first and foremost. Whereas our generation once proved our appreciation, love and respect for our elders by making something of ourselves, it's now OK to follow our hearts and dreams, after all...as long as we always remember what's most important.

Filipiniana Bake Shop and Cafe 209 Bedford Rd Ste 120 Bedford, TX 76022

Le's Fire Pot 2535 E Arkansas Ln, Ste 361 Arlington, TX 76010

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