Authentic Vietnamese dishes at San’s Sandwiches draws people to Gladstone’s Little Saigon
On a recent Tuesday morning, a half-dozen teenagers piled around a table at San’s Sandwiches, a Vietnamese cafe tucked in a corner of Gladstone’s Little Saigon Plaza.
The students laughed and joked with their server as they ordered breakfast in rapid-fire Vietnamese.
Within minutes, they were sipping iced coffees stronger and sweeter than Starbucks frappuccinos and dipping crusty baguettes into hot skillets of sizzling beef, fried egg and xiu mai, or meatballs.
The hearty dish is common in Vietnam, said Bao Tran, one of the students, who lives in Kansas City and works at Vietnam Cafe in Columbus Park. But it can be hard to find in the Midwest.
Tran said that’s why San’s and Little Saigon Plaza are “famous” among his Vietnamese friends.
A little over a year ago, the Little Saigon Plaza at 6583 N. Oak Trafficway was mostly empty except for a Save-A-Lot, Dollar General and hair salon called Carol’s Cut and Curl. Back then, it was called Pagoda Village Gladstone Plaza.
“It was a dead shopping center,” said Eric Phan, the California real estate investor who now owns it. “We made it from blighted to something that people want to come visit.”
Over the past year, Phan has worked to transform the L-shaped building into a food destination with four Vietnamese restaurants and Poke Bar, the first restaurant in the KC area to focus on Hawaiian-style poke bowls made with raw fish, rice and a rainbow of other fresh ingredients.
Little Saigon Plaza is also home to GoCha Tea & Beverages, a cafe that serves Japanese sodas, bubble tea and Dragon’s Breath, a trendy snack infused with liquid nitrogen. Those brave enough to take a bite of the frozen orbs — which taste a lot like Cap’N Crunch cereal — puff cold “smoke.”
Phan is working on adding a Korean-style hot pot restaurant and a sushi spot where rolls are delivered by conveyor belt.
The entrepreneur is aware that Gladstone doesn’t have a large Asian population — according to current Census numbers, around 1 percent of the city’s roughly 27,000 residents identify as Asian.
The Vietnamese community is even smaller. According to Ronald Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Greater Kansas City, the Kansas City area is home to between 11,000 and 15,000 Vietnamese Americans.
Nguyen added that much of that community is concentrated in the Northland and the Historic Northeast. He points to Vietnam Cafe and Pho KC in Columbus Park as two well-known destinations for authentic Vietnamese food.
Little Saigon Plaza is starting to build recognition in the local Vietnamese community, Nguyen said: “I’ve been hearing a lot about it.”
Phan hopes word of mouth spreads to the Kansas side of the metro — specifically to Overland Park, which also has a vibrant Vietnamese community.
“If you build it, they will come,” he said.
His “Field of Dreams” approach might be working. Hank Nguyen, who co-owns San’s Sandwiches with his wife San, says he’s served banh mi sandwiches to customers from all over the country.
The center can be slow on weekdays but gets busier on weekends, when people drive in from places such as Wichita, St. Louis, Iowa and Nebraska.
Leeann Nguyen, who is not related to the owners of San’s Sandwiches, always goes to Little Saigon Plaza when she’s in town visiting her friend Bao Tran.
“I’d drive three hours to eat here,” Leeann Nguyen said.
She and her friends frequent San’s and Broken Rice, where Vietnamese street food is the specialty.
The restaurant’s most popular dish pairs a mound of broken rice — the fragments left over when whole rice is processed — with a juicy charbroiled pork chop, a bowl of broth and sides such as grilled pork sausage, crispy pork skin, egg cake and shrimp balls skewered with sugarcane.
Broken rice was once consumed mostly by Vietnam’s poor working class, Phan said. Now it’s a sought-after street food in his home country.
But you won’t find it on many local menus. Phan said that’s because many American-Vietnamese restaurants survive by limiting their offerings to well-known dishes (such as pho) and serving food from other countries. Picture a menu with pho next to Chinese fried rice, Thai curry or Korean barbecue.
“Not all Asians are the same,” Phan said. And there’s more to Vietnamese cuisine than pho.
Each Little Saigon Plaza Vietnamese restaurant has its own specialty. San’s is sandwiches, and Broken Rice’s is, well, broken rice.
Pho Tuoi owner Anh Thu Le makes pho the traditional way, with fresh noodles and broth simmered for at least seven hours with beef bones, onion, ginger and a mix of spices such as cinnamon and celery seed.
Her short menu also features fish cake, quail egg wontons, salted lemonade and sugarcane tea.
Le said she first considered opening Pho Tuoi in Raymore but decided against it because she knew she’d have to dilute her recipes to cater to American customers.
When Pho Tuoi opened, most customers were Vietnamese. But they started bringing their friends, Le said, and now Americans make up half of her customers.
That’s a good thing for Le and other Little Saigon Plaza entrepreneurs who hope to share the flavors of their native Vietnam with people who otherwise might never get to try them.
“We love to do the original thing,” Le said.