Vietnamese drive-thru restaurants turn fast food on its head

HOUSTON — The Hughie’s on West 18th Street is one among scores of Vietnamese American restaurants around Houston. But it may have more in common with a Dairy Queen.

For starters, it used to be a Dairy Queen. The sign out front still has the eye-shaped outline of the ice cream chain’s logo. On the menu, alongside banh mi and shaking beef, are thickly crusted, buttermilk brined chicken tenders, a Dairy Queen standard.

The most striking similarity, though, is the restaurant’s drive-thru window, which opened in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus lockdowns.

Paul Pham, an owner of this Hughie’s and another a few miles away, hopes that one day, his restaurant will be as ubiquitous as Dairy Queen. Next year, he’ll open a third location, and has plans to expand in Texas and perhaps beyond.

In his vision, the drive-thru — a classic American innovation that harnessed the fast-food business to the nation’s car culture — is also a potential vehicle to make Vietnamese food the next cuisine to join that success story. He believes that Americans’ increasing familiarity with Vietnamese cuisine makes it the ideal food for the next generation of drive-thru restaurants.

In recent years, several Vietnamese restaurants with the same idea have opened in Houston, including Oui Banh Mi, Saigon Hustle and Kim’s Pho & Grill. Outside Texas, there’s Simply Vietnam in Santa Rosa, California; Mi-Sant Banh Mi Co. in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota; and To Me Vietnamese Sub in Calgary, Alberta.

All these restaurants have drive-thrus, and owners who are trying to attract a broader fan base for Vietnamese cooking by marrying its flavors with American convenience.

“We are going to shift toward more of a Chick-fil-A type of concept,” said Pham, who was born and raised in Houston, home to about 150,000 Vietnamese Americans, one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the United States. “They are the godfather of this business, right?”

To him, that also means using technology to streamline customer service, opening in diversely populated neighborhoods and closing on Sundays, as Chick-fil-A does — practices, he said, that are less common among Houston’s older Vietnamese restaurants.

“Our concept would not survive in an old-school Asian environment,” he said. His family opened the first Hughie’s in 2013.

Americans who identify their background as Vietnamese numbered roughly 2.1 million in the 2020 census. Many North American cities, including Philadelphia, Washington and San Jose, California, are experiencing a surge of new Vietnamese restaurants.

But in adopting the drive-thru and other practices of the fast-food industry, restaurateurs hope to reach an audience beyond their fellow Vietnamese Americans.

“We are trying to sit at the level of Panda Express,” said Cassie Ghaffar, an owner of Saigon Hustle, which she opened last February in the Oak Forest neighborhood of Houston with her business partner, Sandy Nguyen.

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