If you want to experience authentic Vietnamese culture, skip the 25-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Look no further than our own Madison Heights. Inexplicably, this mid-sized suburb seems to be the hub for Vietnamese culture in Metro Detroit.
Or maybe not so inexplicable when you look at the numbers. While the 2008 U.S. Census Bureau data
suggests a population density for persons of Vietnamese descent at only 1.9% for the city—hardly a sizable number—but comparable areas boast populations of 0.3% and less, making the overall population a slight 0.2% for all of Oakland County and the entire state of Michigan. In other words, the population may be small, but it is still nearly 10x that of surrounding areas.
Which helps explain the disproportionate number of Vietnamese restaurants, markets, and specialty stores clustered along unlikely stretches of John R and Dequindre, but doesn't really make clear what local Vietnamese business owners find so alluring about the region between 12 and 13 Mile Roads.
It was a mystery I was determined to get to the bottom of. "Why?" I asked every shop owner and restauranteur I encountered. And the question was often met with looks that replied, "Why not?"
The truth is, all these businesses ended up in this area the same way any business ends up anywhere: Chance and circumstance.
"It started with the nail supply stores and kind of followed from there," Phuong Nguyen suggests to me. Her store, Dan Thien Duong
, sells a variety of Chinese herbs and teas, health food, and gifts—everything from Vietnamese DVDs to skincare products. It's been open for 10 years, and despite its extremely niche market, there are no concerns about having enough customers to support the business. "People come from Ohio, Lansing, all over—especially on weekends."
In fact, many of the restaurants and shops are destinations for customers from across the world. "We get people all the way from Ohio and even New York just to try our food," says Cu Nguyen of Thùy Trang Restaurant
. Thanks to Chinese students working towards degrees in Michigan before returning to their native country, Thùy Trang is known for its food as far away as Shanghai.
While the immediate impression left from a drive down John R is that of predominantly Vietnamese businesses, the area actually caters more to the larger Asian community. There are no fewer than five different Vietnamese restaurants in Madison Heights alone (or, a full 55% of such restaurants located in Metro Detroit). There are also Chinese bakeries, Filipino eateries, and Vietnamese-owned markets that carry hard-to-find imported foodstuffs - necessities for those who prepare authentic Asian cuisine. The area's clientele base is largely Japanese and Korean (with growing Middle Eastern interest), while diners at the various Vietnamese restaurants can actually find shades of Chinese, Thai, and even Hmong cooking on the menu, depending on the restaurant.
"There is a flavor factor in the different restaurants. At the place down the street, you wouldn't have gotten as many vegetables," Cu states, gesturing to the overflowing plate of vegetables served with my Banh Hoi Tom Thit Nuong
(build-your-own wraps with crispy seasoned pork and shrimp and a tangy garlic fish sauce popular in Vietnamese cooking). "Each place does it a little differently."
"Japanese people really like soup, so the place with the best soup will attract the Japanese customers," adds Dat Duong, owner of Saigon Market. "If you ask me, 'What's a good restaurant,' I can't tell you—it all depends on what you like. Taste is subjective." All the pho shops proclaim pho as their "specialty," though they are all subtly different in style and in their own way appeal to different taste buds.
Pho is a traditional Vietnamese beef and noodle soup. As with most provincial Vietnamese cooking, pho (pronounced fe) has both Chinese and French culinary roots, distinguishing it from other Asian noodle soups. For Westerners especially, pho is a trademark dish of Vietnamese cuisine, and like sushi and Pad Thai, seems prone to take the leap into mainstream popularity .
"Vietnamese food is exploding right now," Dat observes.
Dat joined with his sister to help her expand Saigon Market
from a small pho shop and dry goods store to a full market that caters to a predominantly Southeast Asian clientele. It offers specialty items needed for Asian cooking, including produce, dry goods, and fresh meats and fish (the signs at the meat counter don't even have English translation). You can also find more elusive items such as fresh Kefir lime leaves, quail eggs, and exotic fruits.
"We supply several Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants, as well as culinary schools in the area," Dat says. "There was a strong need for this type of market because people couldn't get the items that they needed to prepare authentic and traditional foods that they loved and grew up on."
It almost seems like the explosion of Vietnamese businesses in this area is for just that reason: To provide the community with a means of preserving its culture, be it through food or film. Mai Video on John R at 13 Mile Rd. carries nothing but Vietnamese language DVDs.
"All Vietnamese, nothing else?" I ask, just to be sure. "All Vietnamese," is the answer. Ditto for Dan Thien Duong and Kim Hang Jewelry (both specialty gift shops which also sell Vietnamese DVDs).
While I pondered my "why here" question aloud, Dat offered a rather simple explanation: "Newly immigrated people need the familiarity and support of other established families in order to assimilate into the American fabric."
Dat sees the need and demand for such culturally authentic businesses as so great that he has decided to open a Banh Mi
(Vietnamese sandwich) shop next to Saigon Market. "Even though 1.9% may not seem like much, we have had growth in the past decade, enough to sustain the market and expansion to the restaurant," he explains.
Places such as Saigon Market or the nearby Kim Nhung Super Food
serve an under-served yet eager Asian community. On a Monday afternoon, I found each business bustling with clientele, from the pho shops to the gifts shops, markets, and bakeries (at the enthusiastic urging of customer John Julian, I ordered a bubble tea from the Chinese-owned QQ Café & Bakery
, which he swore to me was the absolute best in the area). Kim Nhung is a staple of the area—"It is the center of everything here, probably one of the main things keeping the Asian community going," Cu notes.
The answer to my "why here?" question ultimately became a simple matter of supply and demand: There is a particular market which is unique to this area that was previously under-served. These businesses help to serve and preserve a culture, and have the strength of similar nearby businesses to attract that demographic. Individually and together they provide a way for Southeast Asian immigrants to assimilate into the American culture while still maintaining their own traditions. As one business opened, others followed suit. Econ 101, meet a naturally evolving urban plan. Mystery solved.
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com She's also a regular contributor to Metromode. This story originally ran 11/9/2009
Variety of mint at Saigon Market
Diners at Thang Long
Pho at Thang Long
Sweet Toys at Saigon MArket
BuddhaAll photographs by Marvin Shaouni