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OC restaurant offers more than just Vietnamese cuisine

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Tucked away in a plaza food court north of South Coast Plaza on the corner of Sunflower Ave. and S. Bristol Street is a hidden little gem.

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Although modest in size its atmosphere radiates with an ambiance that is relaxing and pleasing to the eye. Beautifully painted wall-art, oil and pastel paintings and eye-catching photographic images of the people and places of Saigon hang and decorate its walls.

Surrounded by an eclectic range of ethnic eateries from Indian, Greek and Peruvian to Japanese and Cuban, "The Saigon Cuisine Restaurant" has more to offer than just serving Vietnamese fare.

Advertised only by word-of-mouth, it is the live instrumental entertainment that is offered as a treat for their dining guests.

What makes their entertainment special is the fact that the musicians are all Vietnamese senior citizens in their late 60s and 80s playing violin, saxophone and piano. While still going strong musically for their age their instrumental performance is quite good.

Owner Dieu Phan along with his wife Lee opened "The Saigon Cuisine" in 1999. Phan, who will be 68 on Jan. 28 runs the restaurant fulltime after retiring from the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) where he worked as a programmer for 28 years.

Wife Lee is in charge of the kitchen, training kitchen employees the culinary style of cooking and preparing Vietnamese dishes — from their appetizers such as 'Spring Rolls', 'Seafood egg rolls' and 'Escargots baked with garlic butter' to their House Specials of 'Charbroiled fish on sizzling platter', 'Hanoi charbroiled pork with vermicelli' and 'Sautéed Chicken, beef or seafood with flat noodle'.

Their French Flan dessert is deliciously light, not too sweet and is enough to quench an after dinner sweet tooth.

Dieu Phan is also a fine arts painter and musician. His oil paintings and pastels hang on display at their restaurant, and sometimes you can catch Phan perform at the restaurant himself, playing his trumpet and bass guitar along with 80 year old fellow musician Duc Luu Nguyen on Saxophone and Violin.

It is difficult to imagine that at one time Phan and his family were once known as "Boat People" — fleeing their home country during the fall of Saigon in the mid-1970s.

In 1979 Phan and his wife with five family members left Saigon in a riverboat carrying 710 passengers.

Knowing that the riverboat was not meant for the open seas they took their chances to escape a new government rule and for a better life.

The ten dismal days they spent out in sea left many people crying in despair, not knowing if they were going to survive the rough and treacherous waters.

"After five days at sea our boat met up with an American cruise ship only to be turned away, but not before they gave us food and water to help us on our journey", says Phan.

"By the time we reached Singapore we were denied access and forced to leave immediately and continue south to Malaysia where we were met with hostility and threats from the Malaysian military."

Robbed of their possessions including their compass and maps, their riverboat was towed back out to sea and abandoned. Without a compass and map the riverboat traveled aimlessly for four days in rough seas with no idea where they were or where they were headed.

Their luck changed when they finally arrived and landed safely in Indonesia. With aide and assistance from the Indonesian government, all passengers including Phan and his family were taken to the Putong Refugee Camp where they stayed for 3 months.

During their stay, Dieu Phan was able to contact his brother in Seattle, WA who then sponsored the entire family for access and citizenship to the U.S.

Phan's story did not have an easy beginning, but it took courage and the will to survive numerous setbacks that brought Dieu and Lee Phan to where they are today — enjoying what they love most, making people happy through food and music.

Saigon Cuisine is located at:
3930 S. Bristol Street
Santa Ana, CA 92704
(714) 557-8824

Please call to find out when the musicians will be performing.

Special thanks to Dieu and Lee Phan and Duc Luu Nguyen.

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