Years before Manh Trac was born in Ho Chi Minh City, his mother performed at the local circus, balancing her petite frame upon spinning barrels. She had terrible motion sickness, but she also had six siblings to help feed. So if it took some daredevil stunts to accomplish that, so be it.
When that wasn’t enough, Yen Nguyen learned to cook. She set up a lunch stand in an industrial neighborhood and sold steaming bowls of her homemade noodle soups to factory workers on break. Her long-simmered beef pho and pork-broth soups picked up a following. Soon she had a food cart to roll into the local zoo, where she could sell bags of homemade Vietnamese street snacks to visiting families.
When her son was born, she moved the food enterprise to her front porch. At 25, Manh Trac tells that story as if he witnessed all of it himself, with details so vivid you can taste the chili oil in his mother’s popular spicy beef vermicelli bowls.
He tells the story today from Yen’s Kitchen, the bright, month-old restaurant his mother opened in a suburban Lake Worth plaza that’s home to three churches, a pizzeria and a new-ish Asian market. Manh may be standing a world away from that front-porch stand of their native Vietnam, but the scents and flavors of their homeland surround him in the small, casual eatery.
“Everything you see here is made by my mother,” says Manh, referring to the neat shelves of street snacks and spices his mom makes and packages. “We’re just her supporters.”
A hand-painted mural lights up a wall with a sign that translates to “Second Sister of Saigon” — it’s a popular Vietnamese movie title that seems made to order for his mom. Not only is she a second-eldest sister from the city formerly known as Saigon, she’s an industrious woman like the film’s protagonist.
That’s his mother in the kitchen, ladling 18-hour broth into deep bowls. What you don’t see: The many hours Yen Nguyen spends making the snacks she packages, the desserts displayed in the cooler, the traditional teas she brews, the sandwich meats for her banh mis and the batter for her Vietnamese crepes.
Manh, who was 8 when his family came to America in 2003 and who holds bachelor’s degrees in business management and communications, handles the operational side of the restaurant while his father Hung Trac and sister Phuong Trac, who helped fund the restaurant startup, help out in the kitchen. Manh is the restaurant manager who sources the ingredients, pays vendors and schedules staff. He does this so his mother can do what she loves to do best: cook.
Theirs is a quintessential immigrant story in which faraway flavors keep a family grounded and inspired. Yen’s home-cooking nourished the Trac/Nguyen family, body and soul, through several moves in their new country, from Alabama to Tampa to West Palm Beach. She cooked the dishes she learned from her grandmother, following the instructions spelled out in the tattered book of family recipes she carried over from Vietnam.
Her kitchen became her sanctuary during the decade-plus she spent working as a nail tech. It was where she could forget how badly the salon’s toxic products had cracked her hands and affected her breathing. It was where she could remember why she sacrificed her health daily — she was saving up to open a restaurant. Cooking became the force that kept her balanced even on the most painful days. It was like the sheer-will force that sustained her atop those circus barrels so many years ago.
“I love to cook. I love to cook every day,” says Yen on a recent night during a quick break from the kitchen to greet diners.
Despite her long hours, the lack of sleep and the rush of opening a new business, she is beaming.
“She says she still can’t believe it,” says her son, stepping up to translate for her. “It’s always been a dream and she thinks about it every night.”
He has watched his mom chip away at her dream for years. She was the church lady who loved to cook for the Vietnamese congregation that gathers weekly for a special evening service at a Lantana Road church.
“She was doing that for a few years. Her food was amazing — people always requested it. Then she started getting special requests like, ‘Can you make me a pot of broth this week?’ She always said yes,” says Manh.
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Making broth is how Yen found a new life as a cook in Vietnam, where she grew up as the child of a poor factory worker, went to work at age 14 and, at the height of her street-food enterprise, created a moveable eatery complete with small plastic chairs and reusable bowls. Making broth is how she found a new livelihood in Palm Beach County. The broth, be it beef, pork or chicken, simmers in enormous pots at the restaurant. She also makes family-sized pots customers can take home for a deposit and return when empty. Her kitchen, one might say, is swimming in broth.
Yen’s small restaurant is as much a testament to where she’s from as it is to where she is, a county that grows more culturally diverse by the day. While the new restaurant at first attracted mostly Vietnamese customers and diners from other local Asian communities, Manh says the clientele is slowly diversifying.
Putting together the restaurant’s business plan and taking a lead role in its operation is his chance to repay his parents for their generosity, says Manh.
“Thanks to them, I was fortunate that I got to grow up with a full belly every day,” he says.
He tells a story that rings familiar to many immigrants who came to this country as young kids. He was the translator, the explainer, the son who at age 11 helped his parents decipher utility bills. He is the keeper of his family’s history, the millennial son who can recount the touchstone moments of his mother’s life.
He can tell you Yen was the only one in her family to finish high school and continue her studies. He can tell you his mother shared a special bond with the youngest and “brightest” of her siblings, the brother she encouraged to graduate from technical school. Manh recounts how his mother collapsed while working at her food stand on the day she got the news of her brother’s sudden death at age 18. The grief and sense of helplessness nearly paralyzed her, he says.
His mother’s life story fueled his drive to earn two degrees at Florida Atlantic University in four years, says Manh.
“I knew nothing but putting in 110 percent throughout my time at school,” he says.
Now he’s devoting that energy and knowledge to the family business.
“I’m looking to grow the restaurant in all the different angles I can, from taking care of the paperwork to building the website and taking photos for social media, while my mom focuses on the kitchen,” says Manh. “I just want her to fulfill her dream.”
• What: A new Vietnamese restaurant, which opened Aug. 26
• Where: 7364 Lake Worth Rd., (just east of the Florida Turnpike in suburban Lake Worth), 561-619-8255; on Facebook @YKStreetFood, on Instagram @YKStreetFood
• Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday. Offers dine-in, pick-up, delivery and catering
• Menu highlights: While a variety of classic pho is always on the menu ($8.25 to $13.25), Yen’s other brothy soups rotate daily ($10.95 to $13.95). Her specialty, spicy beef vermicelli soup ($12.95 to $13.95), is offered on Saturdays. There’s also a range of banh mi sandwiches ($4.95 to $5.95), starters, sticky rice, crepes and, on Sunday, congee. She also offers street snacks, Vietnamese sweets and coffees.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Yen’s Kitchen: New Vietnamese restaurant tells family’s immigrant story