Many of San Francisco’s most iconic foods are products of migration. Sourdough originated in ancient Egypt, Rice-a-Roni was conceived of by Armenian, Italian and Canadian immigrants and even Dungeness crab makes its way down here from the coast of Alaska. But as with all things, recipes shape-shift as people move around. Vietnamese American garlic noodles, recently named one of The New York Times’ most popular dishes of 2022, are a delicious example.
Vietnamese-born aristocrat-turned-restaurateur Helene An fled South Vietnam for San Francisco in 1975, moving in with her mother-in-law, Diana. Diana had purchased a small diner in the Outer Sunset a few years prior, and together the family opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in the city, Thanh Long.
Upon settling in San Francisco, Helene realized that Americans couldn’t resist noodles doused in cream, and she decided to put an ever-so-slightly healthy spin on things by adding garlic. Today, these heavenly, butter-laden noodles are the An family’s chef-d’oeuvre, and most diners pair the dish with whole roasted Dungeness crab or grilled and butterflied prawns.
The recipe for garlic noodles remains a closely guarded An family secret. Only members of the family are allowed to make the dish, and it’s prepared in what the Ans call their “secret kitchen”—a clandestine corner back-of-house. Why such strict privacy? For one, the experience of fleeing her homeland taught Helene to be protective.
“My mom lost everything two or three times in her life,” her daughter Monique told KQED in 2021. “She said you can lose everything but your knowledge. That’s kind of her gift to us.”
The An family now runs Crustacean, Thanh Long’s stylish sister restaurant in Nob Hill, as well as several other Vietnamese eateries in Southern California. You can find similar dishes at other Vietnamese restaurants across the Bay Area—and the noodles even informed a recipe in The Wok, a critically acclaimed cookbook by chef J. Kenji López-Alt—but noodle experts agree that one of the most popular dishes of 2022 started at a little luncheonette on Judah Street.
Sarah Holtz can be reached at [email protected]