By: Donovan McKnight, Co-Director, Ethnosh //
“Good evening!” I shout, addressing the ravenous crowd. “Thank you all for coming to tonight’s NoshUp at Van Loi 2 Vietnamese Restaurant and Chinese Bar-B-Que.”
The place is Greensboro, North Carolina, a mid-sized town in the American South. Once the jewel in the crown of the textiles and tobacco industries, this city now readies itself to wave a new banner.
Here, at this out-of-the-way Vietnamese restaurant in a half hidden strip mall off one of Greensboro’s main thoroughfares, 200 people have gathered en masse to taste a selection of Van Loi 2’s offerings, and to meet the woman behind it all.
Owner Trang Tran accompanies me as I address the record crowd with a handheld P.A. system. Behind us, barbecued ducks hang under neon lights in the front window. Tran, a middle-aged woman, is dressed stylishly, brimming with the steely confidence of a single mother and a successful entrepreneur. As I wrap up my introductions, Trang takes hold of the mic and greets her new patrons; most have never heard of Van Loi 2, her days and nights, her legacy.
Trang Tran moved from the mountains of South Vietnam to join her husband in Greensboro on July 4, 2000. But, when he died unexpectedly, she was left to run the business alone. Many people doubted her, urged her to sell the restaurant.
Years later, Van Loi 2 is a booming business, a magnet for Southeast Asians, native-born foodies, and gastro-enthusiasts from all around.
Tonight only, at this NoshUp, members of the public arrive and pay less than $10 for a plate of signature dishes from Van Loi’s extensive menu: Roasted pork, barbecued shrimp, vermicelli noodles, fresh spring rolls, and the occasional Vietnamese beer, durian bubble tea, or Vietnamese iced coffee.
Over the course of this two-hour NoshUp, participants swarm into Van Loi 2. College students, young families, retirees, world travelers, those curious for culture, hungry for something new. Some of them shake hands as they wait in line to be served, and then find a seat wherever they can squeeze. A lone participant pulls up a chair with a family of strangers as they dig in.
This is the 19th NoshUp that Ethnosh has produced in just under two years. One event per month, each is a new adventure to another immigrant-owned ethnic food business: Korea, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Naples, Nepal, Haiti, Palestine, and on and on.
As Trang Tran concludes her address, she points over her shoulder to a newspaper article hanging in the front window. Before each NoshUp, Ethnosh produces an article and photo essay about the business, the owner, and, of course, the food. Tens of thousands of Greensboroans have already gotten an intimate look at this magnificent woman. They’ve read about her trials, and glimpsed photos of her colorful food, her unique and thriving business.
The crowd applauds the work of Trang and her staff. They wipe their mouths, finish their beers, and file out into the parking lot as Trang wishes each of them well from the door. They get in their cars and drive home, bellies full, down the wide Gate City Boulevard. Block after block of commercial buildings, once vacant, are now occupied in large part by businesses just like Van Loi 2, by people just like Trang. Tiendas, taquerias, African groceries, halal markets.
All of them propping up a layer of Greensboro’s economy that, while less visible, is important to this town.
The people make their way home and await next month’s NoshUp. Another window into worlds of their town they never knew existed. A glimpse at the changing South. A complex menagerie of people coming and going in different ways, in different tongues, at different tables, but all together now in Greensboro, North Carolina.
About the Author
Donovan is co-director of Ethnosh, a project that profiles immigrant-owned, international food businesses by hosting public tasting events and publishing ethnographic photo essays about the business owners.
More at www.ethnosh.org.