Saigon Flower remains a bit of a visual oddity in West Queen West.
The tiny Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant’s yellow sign is sandwiched between two Drake Hotel properties at the corner of Queen Street West and Beaconsfield Avenue. It looks sort of like how a tree would warp itself around an existing fence. Or, more appropriately, an ever-changing neighbourhood forming around a nearly 40-year-old restaurant.
Owner Muoi Vuong, or Rose as she’s known as, may not have the buzziest restaurant, but Saigon Flower remains a constant for a neighbourhood known for its boons and busts. (And whether the influx of pot shops and fried chicken takeout joints on Queen West is a boon or bust is up for debate).
“I have some customers — their mom, their daughter and their granddaughter are my clients,” she said. “They like my food and always come back. I have some customers who moved out of the city and when they come back, they will call me to order.”
Saigon Flower is one of the few remaining decades-old chop suey houses in the city, as Chinese cooking in Toronto continues to move toward more regional cooking found in China, or reinterpretations of classic Chinese cooking done by a younger cohort of chefs.
Sometimes you just want a place that does really good piping hot chicken balls (golden-fried and handmade), a plate of General Tso tofu (excellent crispy skin), or vegetarian moo shoo with crepes (Vuong will ask diners if they’re OK with eggs just in case they’re vegan).
Depending on who she’s talking to, Vuong will switch between Cantonese, Vietnamese, Mandarin and English (same goes for the shows on the restaurant’s TV). She’s among the large group of Vietnamese-Chinese Canadians who came to Toronto as refugees during the Vietnam War.
Her husband, late photojournalist Thai Khac Chuong, received the World Press Photo award in 1976 for his photo of an American official pushing a man trying to board the evacuation plane he was on. The photo is hung alongside his other war photos in the restaurant.
Vuong’s family arrived in Canada in 1980 as refugees when she was still in her 20s. Needing to find a job, she enrolled in food preparation and cooking classes at Niagara College and later George Brown College, learning to cook a mix of western and Chinese dishes that were popular in the city at the time (think dim sum and chop suey).
An acquaintance who worked in real estate offered to sell her a building in West Queen West that used to house another Chinese restaurant. The kitchen needed an overhaul, but she bought it anyway for a low six-figure in 1986.
Saigon Flower, named after the city she left behind, was on the ground floor while her and her family lived upstairs.
Three years after the restaurant opened, Vuong’s husband died. At the time, her younger daughter was barely a year-old. Her family told her she wouldn’t be able to keep the restaurant going so it would be best to just sell the place.
“I said, ‘I’ll wait and see. If I cannot do it, then I’ll sell,’” she said. “I just kept going.”
Over the next four decades, the area saw dramatic changes. She remembered when she first arrived it was mostly industrial warehouses, and her family doctor told her it was a red light district.
“Sometimes the police won’t let the women stand outside, but when they come sit down to eat, the police doesn’t bother them,” Vuong said. “Now, some of the girls now have families. Once in a while they come back to eat. They call me Ms. Thai, because that’s my husband’s name. They still remember me.”
The biggest change has been the arrival of The Drake Hotel. The boutique hotel next to Vuong’s restaurant wanted to expand down the block, but she repeatedly turned down its offers over the years.
Right now, Saigon Flower is sandwiched between two Drake properties. Vuong first told me she had no plans to move out when I first met her a decade ago. That hasn’t changed.
“I’m not selling because I want to keep another small business in here. I don’t want a big chunk of the block to be one business,” she said, seeing the building as also an investment for her kids. Vuong also purchased the Parkdale Drink bar a few blocks west 15 years ago. “I also don’t want to sell because my kid can’t buy it back. How are the young people able to buy anything?”
A decade after opening, Vuong added Vietnamese dishes to the menu, boasting that she rolls the spring rolls by herself and that her mom taught her to make pho.
The flavours are akin to home cooking: the spring rolls are packed with more pork — something a mom would definitely do for her kids — compared to the standard restaurant and the pho broth is lighter in flavour so it can be fully drunk as intended.
The food is tasty, but none of that matters if a restaurant can’t keep up with the costs of running a business.
Vuong pointed to the price of cooking oil recently doubling, as well as the cost of the Thai basil she uses in her pho. She’s rationing packets of plum sauce as her suppliers are out, and the vermicelli now has to be ordered two weeks earlier to make up for shipping delays.
“If I didn’t own the building, I don’t think I could do this. The rent now is really high in the city. We’re lucky that we can keep going,” she said, remarking that she’s able to charge just over $10 for a bowl of pho for the time being, while another restaurant she visited recently was charging $17 because its owners didn’t own the property.
As a place that mostly does takeout business nowadays, Vuong is also able to get by with just two staffers, chef Paul Cheng and server Judy Ip, both of which have worked at the restaurant for more than a decade.
“The most important thing is to have a good staff and we treat each other like family. It’s the three of us. By now you know how to organize everything. She takes care of the orders and the machines, I go into the kitchen to help the chef. I’ll work the deep fryer and he uses the woks.”
Though Vuong would like to pass down the building, she knows her kids aren’t interested in leaving their desk jobs for the long, physical hours of running a restaurant. But she has no plan on stopping anytime soon.
“Maybe in the future if we get more busy we’ll hire another person. We’re lucky that we’re doing OK. I joked to my chef that he needs to stay with me until I retire. He then said, ‘I don’t even know when you’re going to retire,’” Vuong said.
“I worked for so many years and it’s become my interest. When I sit down, things will get boring. I’d rather have something to do, it’s healthier for me.”
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