Several weeks ago a couple of friends dragged me to the most satisfying dining experience one can have in Miami. The restaurant is in Little Havana and no, the menus aren't in Spanish and the food isn't Cuban. It is Hy Vong, a Vietnamese restaurant which stands on Calle Ocho — a stone's throw from Versailles — and yet the experience is so unique you may as well be in downtown Venus.
I had long heard of this restaurant's delights. It was once described to me as this city's “best kept secret” yet when I finally decided to check it out, I couldn't find the place — a sure fire strike against the establishment. So it stands to reason that when a group of friends recently discussed dining options on a Friday night and this joint came up I was lukewarm to the idea. However, after a little arm twisting and more stories of its peculiarities which go well beyond its cuisine, I ceded and to my pleasant surprise, upon arrival, I was captivated by its charm, food and irreverent authenticity.
In a city where everyone wants to be known, where the “foodie” craze has reached new over-indulgent, hedonistic heights and where many restaurateurs and chefs crave rock star celebritydom more than simple praise for a well prepared meal, Hy Vong offers a parallel universe of tasty, affordable meals in a non pretentious environment.
Part of what makes dinner at Hy Vong such an enjoyable experience is the unorthodox, almost zany service you receive from the moment you arrive. There are no well coiffed hosts or glamorous faux water falls to greet you. Instead, you're greeted by a simple notebook with a list of names on a self standing sign on the sidewalk. You will generally find a group of folks milling about outside the establishment and someone will eventually let you know that you have to write your own name on the waiting list. As you stand on the sidewalk, feet away from the dense traffic of S.W. 8th street, you begin to commiserate with fellow diners whose names are also on the impromptu list.
“Pay close attention when Kathy comes out and make sure you get her attention when she calls your name,” one long-time patron warned us. Upon first sight, Kathy Manning, co-owner of the restaurant, gives off the impression of a cross between a disoriented cat lady and the “soup nazi” from Seinfeld. Stories abound of Kathy's rugged way with diners. “When she likes you, she likes you and when she doesn't she shows you the door,” another faithful customer explained. Fortunately for my party, Kathy took to us. In fact, she was nothing if not downright charming.
Kathy Manning and Tung Nguyen, whom Kathy took in when Tung arrived pregnant as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975, opened Hy Vong in 1980 amidst riots, the Mariel boatlift and cocaine cowboys. What ensued is one of the most successful eateries in South Florida history.
Some of the chairs at Hy Vong are folding chairs, some of the tables are card tables, the wall paper has a 1970's bad karate movie motif and the place is somewhat snug. However, like all great spots, the elements in Hy Vong have a way of melding together to provide the ideal ambiance for sharing a meal and having that deeper conversation you've been meaning to have with a friend. The same way that Kathy is in no hurry to get you in the place, there is no scramble to kick you out and clear your table.
I am not a critic and I cringe at the use of certain heightened adjectives to describe food, but the meal at Hy Vong was second to none. Everything tasted fresh and flavorful. That evening, every anecdote was punctuated by a tasty morsel and all punch lines were enhanced during our four-hour meal at of one of Miami's most genuine spots.