Swoon cues: A blissful smile, an approving clockwise eye roll from earth to heaven back to earth, gentle moaning — a yardstick of “mmmmmmm” — delivered in low, firm exhalation. Mention Vietnam Kitchen to just about any Louisvillian, and you can expect the above reactions. Since 1993, owner Alex Lam and his wife Kim have amassed fiercely loyal followers who attach themselves to favorite dishes — K8, VK8, F9 — items ordered in bingo lingo because the Vietnamese names pose too daunting a challenge. (Hu Tiêu Saté, Hu tiêu Saté chay and Gà Xào Cà Ry Cay respectively.)
Vietnam Kitchen’s ascension to Louisville institution didn’t happen immediately. The first four years business lagged. Some of Lam’s friends questioned his decision to plunge into the fickle restaurant business. “It scared me,” he says one afternoon between lunch and dinner rushes. “I told my wife, ‘Well, we will just do it. (And) if it (does) not work out, do something else.’”
But in the late ’90s, vegetarianism gained fans. Other than Cafe Mimosa, options were limited. So the Highlands and Crescent Hill crowd ventured down South Third Street to the Iroquois neighborhood and into Vietnam Kitchen’s narrow aqua-blue dining room lined with plastic-top tables. Word spread. Vn8! L1! A4! Try it all! The new devotees preached and popularity followed. Profits followed. Even rock ’n’ roll followed. A Louisville hardcore band, Black Cross, penned a song titled “V.K.H.C.” — short for Vietnam Kitchen Hardcore.
Sixty-two-year-old Alex Lam is thin, as steady as a vent’s hum when he speaks, fast and focused come mealtime. (A call to him at noon earned this curt response: “I’m busy. Call back.” Click.) Originally from Saigon in South Vietnam, Lam left in 1979, unhappy with the communist takeover of his country after the Vietnam War. He and his wife boarded a fishing boat for Hong Kong. Packed with 146 refugees, the boat had no room for passengers to lie down, only sit. The group spent six nights at sea with just a compass and a radio for weather alerts. One night the radio announced a dire storm ahead. What could they do but endure? The South China Sea tossed the vessel — 20 feet wide and 50 feet long — in its reckless grip.
After they’d spent several months at a refugee camp in Hong Kong, a friend with a cousin in Louisville helped sponsor the Lams through Catholic Charities. In January 1980, they stepped off a plane and onto an icy white layer of snow, a new experience for both. Decades later, the Lams have built one of those places, the kind stamped into a city’s identity, the kind that when you mention its name, those who’ve been there act like wise elders remembering first love.
This article appeared in the July 2014 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, visit Loumag.com.
Photos provided by Chris Witzke