Philadelphia has one of the largest Vietnamese populations on America’s East Coast, and the Vietnamese community makes up one of the largest foreign-born groups in the South Philly area.
In 1975, Fort Indiantown Gap in Central Pennsylvania became one of the four resettlement and processing centers to receive refugees from the Vietnam War. In the first 8 months, more than 20,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees were housed at FIG, with many choosing to relocate to the Philadelphia region. When Vietnamese refugees first moved to Philadelphia, many initially shopped in Chinatown in Center City. The opportunity to purchase affordable real estate to open businesses came in the 1990s — in what would become Little Saigon.
Washington Avenue had been a center of industry for nearly 180 years. In 1838, the Philadelphia Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad laid down tracks on Washington Ave. and coal yards, furniture manufacturers and steel companies soon followed. The quintessential Philadelphia rowhome, “workforce housing for the new factories,” helped shape the industrial residential area. By the 1960s, building supply stores and auto repair shops (some of which are still in business) dotted the avenue. And by the 1980s, the freight rail line closed, factories started to shut down, and vacancies began to pop up on the once vibrant industrial corridor. These vacancies provided opportunities for the next wave of immigrant businesses.
The first Vietnamese strip mall, Hoa Binh Plaza at 16th St. & Washington Ave. opened in 1990, followed by Wing Phat Plaza at 11th and Washington, and New World Plaza and 1st Oriental Supermarket on either side of 6th and Washington.
According to analyses by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, South Philadelphia has “long been a magnet for foreign-born newcomers due to relatively affordable housing prices and the presence of well-established immigrant communities.” Little Saigon is blocks away from the Italian and Mexican communities near the historic Italian Market and Mifflin Square Park, which brings together one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse communities in the city, where you’ll hear more than 21 languages spoken among Southeast Asian refugees and Latino and African immigrants.
The city’s population has steadily increased, with much credit to immigration as a key population and economic driver. Little Saigon and South Philadelphia are now changing with cultural treasures at risk of demolition to make way for more residential development and higher price point businesses. Hoa Binh Plaza, the pioneering Vietnamese shopping center, is one of many properties that have been sold and rezoned for residential use — in this case hundreds of apartment units with amenities including underground parking, a green roof, and a roof deck.
To celebrate the longstanding contributions of Vietnamese Americans in Philadelphia, Vietcera has assembled a list of both the beloved standbys and most exciting newcomers in Little Saigon. While some carry history as old as the first suburban Vietnamese strip malls, others are led by the next generation immigrant entrepreneurs.
Phở Gà Thanh Thanh (Wing Phat Plaza)
Simply the best phở gà in Philly, arguably on the East Coast. Not too many places can pull off a dish with so few ingredients — succulently poached chicken, clear and delicately spiced broth, and a heaping plate of fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil and mint, and jalapeños. Get your chicken (quarter, half, or whole) with plain phở on the side so that you get the most tender meat and all the juicy innards and cubed blood with plenty of salt, pepper, and lime dipping sauce. Cà phê sữa đá, iced Vietnamese espresso with condensed milk, pairs nicely with a steaming, sumptuous bowl of chicken noodle soup.
Run by Central Vietnam native Nhan and her son Andrew, this intimate comfort food spot does not skimp—their noodle soups are abundantly overflowing with meats and toppings.
Regulars have for their go-to’s. Khanh Tran, who was born in Saigon and whose family hails from Da Nang, dreams about the “unctuous, belly-warming, and rich” oxtail cháo — Vietnamese congee. Both Khanh and Djung Tran, whose family is from Saigon and Soc Trang, adore the noodle soups — bánh canh (thick needle noodles that must have “a clean bite, [and] light, pork-based broth,” says Khanh, dancing with shrimp, pork belly, pork bone, pig feet in pork broth and topped with fried shallots and razor thin white onion) and bún riêu (fluffy balls of pork, crab, and tofu, minced dried shrimp, cubed pork blood, and pig feet with long rice noodles in a tomato broth). Leave with at least two bánh mì đặc biệt to-go.
Ba Lẹ Bakery (New World Plaza)
Truly, a wonderland of prepared foods (including party trays), desserts, cured and spreadable meats, pastries, and indulgent road trip essentials.
Catherine Nguyen, whose family is from Saigon and Soc Trang, has come for decades. She spends no less than $60 per visit, with favorites including bánh cuốn chả lụa (pork-stuffed rice crepe platter with pork roll), bánh mì — ”excellent baguettes with crunch and soft chewy guts” — for breakfast mixing it up between xíu mại (meatballs), thịt nướng (chargrilled pork), thịt nguội (classic cold cuts), and the tofu and pineapple. She stocks up on pâté, chả lụa (pork roll, with or without peppercorns), mayonnaise, xôi (savory or sweet sticky rice with delightful toppings) and nem chua (“hot-pink raw pork pillows the size of a D battery, each painstakingly identically packaged with a slice of garlic and chili pepper, individually Saran-wrapped!”) for family gatherings.
Super affordable spot that hearkens home. Anh Nguyen of local community organization VietLead likes to start with the bánh cuốn — steamed rice rolls stuffed with peppery ground pork and crunchy wood ear mushrooms, topped with slices of pork roll, that you toss in a salad of herbs, pickled carrots, and cucumbers and smother in nước chấm — before getting to the main attraction. Café Diem is known for its bún bò huế—a spicy, porky noodle soup loaded with fatty cuts of beef, braised tripe and tendons, pork feet, and slices of pork roll, topped with bean sprouts, banana flowers, and herbs.
“You can tell by the quality of meat, or the soup, or even the noodles, because they use a special type of noodles that you can’t really get the fresh ones here,” she says. “Every time I go there I have a great meal, and that speaks to Vietnamese food culture—no matter where you go in Vietnam, you sit down, you have a meal with meat, vegetables, soup, and delicious sauces..their staff is extremely friendly and extremely attentive...I just feel like I’m going home every time I go there. Actually Café Diem is where I go when I’m sad.”
Nam Phương (Wing Phat Plaza)
Catherine Nguyen grew up going to this traditional, homestyle restaurant every Sunday. Her father knew the original owner back in Vietnam and Nam Phương was the go-to for birthdays and holiday celebrations with seating for 30. A few favorites: Thịt kho or cá kho tộ (bubbling clay pot of caramelized pork or fish), Canh chua tôm (sweet and sour tamarind soup with tomato, pineapple, taro stems, and shrimp), rau muốn (sautéed water spinach in garlic or fermented tofu), nd noodle soup mainstays including phở and bun riêu.
Locals Djung Tran goes for Ba Vị — three grilled delights: pork meatballs, beef in grape leaves, and shrimp paste wrapped around sticks of sugarcane, “that come to the table ready to be rolled with fresh herbs, pickles, and banh hoi (rice vermicelli),” while Ha Thu Pham recommends bò bía (refreshing spring rolls with jicama and lạp xưởng — Chinese sausage).
Phở 75 (Wing Phat Plaza)
As the name suggests, this spot serves one thing and one thing only. Go simple and true with phở tai (slices of rare steak) or load up on all combos imaginable of chin (well-done brisket), gân (soft tendon), gâu (fatty brisket), nạm (well-done flank), bò viên (meatballs), and sắch (beef tripe). Xuan Luong, who was born in Vietnam and whose parents were from Hanoi and Chợ Lớn, orders phở đặc biệt (all of the meats!) in the cold and hot months. To keep your cool, round out your meal with cà phê sữa đá or chè ba màu (part dessert, part drink with sweetened mung and red beans, coconut milk, pandan jelly and crushed ice) for the kids.
This is the place for chè — Vietnam’s signature sweet pudding dessert. You can’t go wrong with chè 3 mau—their version of the tri-colored classic comes with red, white, and mung beans, homemade taro, pandan jelly, coconut milk, and plenty of ice. The sky’s the limit with their dessert drink combos, whether you want tropical fruits like lychee, jackfruit, and longan, fruity teas with palm seeds and basil seeds, or all manner of jellies including pandan, grass, red tapioca, and jello. There are also many delicious fruit smoothies including durian, soursop, and avocado.
Café Thanh Truc
Situated in the heart of Little Saigon at 8th Street and Washington Avenue, this tiny spot has a smaller menu than some of its neighbors, but has all the staples including hủ tiếu Nam Vang—Phnom Penh style rice noodle soup (try it khô, dry style with soup on the side) with all the fixings (pork, liver, heart, minced pork, quail eggs, shrimp, and a small mountain of garlic chives and fried shallots), bò kho (tender beef stew with big chunks of braised meat, carrots, and rice noodles in a spicy tomato beef broth), and comforting cháo. You can never go wrong with bánh mì đặc biệt (cold cuts, pâté, pickled daikon, jalepeño, and mayonnaise).