Ian Bailey

How chef Helene An, who fled Vietnam as a refugee in 1975, changed the game with Crustacean. 

Gowri Chandra
March 12, 2018

A stone’s throw from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the old Crustacean restaurant had all the luxe signifiers of East Asian dining in America: Columns painted with gold dragons, a dining room dissected by a koi-filled stream where you order $60 plates of crab. This week, the 20-year old restaurant emerges from a six month, $10 million dollar renovation, with hopes that its next two decades will be just as successful.

Since opening in Los Angeles in 1997, the restaurant has become something of a Hollywood hotspot, figuring prominently on “where to spot celebs in LA” Google searches. Lady Gaga, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruno Mars and the entire Kardashian clan have been known to eat at the Vietnamese seafood-driven spot—among a litany of other A-listers. Last year, chef owner Helene An catered the birthday party for Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson at his Los Angeles home.

It’s easy then, amidst this Hollywood glamour, to forget the contrasting origin story of its founder, often referred to as the "mother of fusion" cuisine: chef Helene An, who fled Vietnam as a refugee in 1975. Escaping the war-torn country of her birth, An landed in San Francisco to join her recently immigrated extended family, including her husband and three daughters.

It was there, in the city’s outskirts (the Outer Sunset neighborhood), that her late mother-in-law Diana An had put down $45,000 to buy an Italian diner in 1971. She had used the money from the family’s extensive import/export empire; her husband hadn’t approved, but no matter.

Courtesy of the An Family

Helene landed in 1975. Americans were still reeling from some complex—well, racist—feelings about Vietnam. Consequently, the country’s food was regarded with some suspicion, so the decision was made to largely leave the diner’s Italian menu intact, veering away from the “ethnic” elements that might stir up trouble, she says. There were just a couple of Vietnamese items on the menu: a rice paper roll stuffed with basil and herbs, for example, originally called the “mutli-vitamin roll” to appeal to health-conscious diners at the dawn of the hippie-driven wellness movement.

Diana An was a great cook, Helene says; she had grown up with private chefs cooking many types of cuisines and had seemingly mastered them all.

Helene, who like her mother-in-law had also grown up with private chefs in Vietnam, had absolutely no desire to make a career out of restaurants. “I was very lazy,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t like it, but I had to do something to survive.” Her husband, a former military commander in Vietnam, was not used to working in this way, certainly not in the backs of kitchens; she had to support the family. She had started going to accounting school in the mornings and worked at the diner at night as a temporary way to contribute.

Despite her aversion to a hospitality career, she was invested in making the menu reflect her own tastes; so she began introducing Vietnamese dishes to the largely Italian menu. At some point the restaurant’s name was changed to ThanhLong; it’s still operating at its original location and claims to have been one of the first Vietnamese restaurants on the West Coast.

Carl Larsen

“It wasn’t authentic; it was like fusion,” An says. “American palates don’t like fish sauce; it was too salty. So I had to change the dishes slightly.” Out of this fusion mentality was born one of An’s most famous creations, her garlic noodles: Eggy wheat noodles slathered in a je ne sais quoi butter sauce, with plenty of garlic.

“I thought, Americans really like to eat a lot of pasta,” she says. “So what could I make that’s similar?” Today, it’s one of Crustacean’s signature dishes, and arguably one of its most popular orders.

So popular, in fact, that An makes it and a handful of other recipes in her legendary “secret kitchen:” a kitchen space that’s physically set apart from the restaurant’s larger kitchen under the same roof, open only to employees who have worked at her restaurants for over ten years. “If something were to happen to me,” An says, “I wanted my daughters to still be able to make a living for themselves and have these recipes.” (Today, the “secret” kitchen concept exists at nearly all of her restaurants and will exist at the new Crustacean, as well.)

Eventually, the popularity of these proto-Vietnamese dishes began to prompt long lines at ThanhLong, which would snake outside in San Francisco’s fog-rolled winters; the restaurant’s dining room was eventually expanded. In 1991, business was so good that the family opened a second restaurant. They called it Crustacean.

Carl Larsen

Today, it’s the House of An’s most famous restaurant, and it has two locations: the flagship in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, and their second in Beverly Hills, which opened in 1997.

This week, their 20 year old Beverly Hills location emerges from a $10-million-dollar renovation. The former dining room, which harkened back to a colonialist Indochine residence, has been painted over with a neutral palette in hopes of being more timeless than transportive. The menu, too, has pivoted from its titular seafood-centricity towards having more omnivorous appeal. There’s A5 Wagyu from Idaho’s Snake River Farms—which also supplies other well-known restaurants like those of José Andrés—cooked on a pink Himalayan salt block. Two diners can order one piece of steak medium-rare and well-done; the meat will continue to cook on the still-hot salt block when it’s brought to the table, allowing for DIY cooking times, as it were. Still, it’s likely that An’s signature roasted crab and lobster garlic noodles will be the menu’s crown jewels.

Chef Tony Nguyen, previously at Anqi in Orange County—also run by the family’s House of An restaurant group—has been brought on post-renovation. Helene An, however, despite being in her seventies, still can be found behind the stoves pulling ten to twelve hour days according to Nguyen.

“I’m still very lazy,” she says, laughing.

Crustacean officially launches its second iteration and opens to the public in Beverly Hills on Tuesday, March 13.