Pioneer Chef Helene An Says It’s Time L.A. Got to Know High-End Vietnamese Food

At Da Lat Rose, An cements her legacy with a 12-course “gastro-biography”

At Da Lat Rose, a Vietnamese restaurant opening in Beverly Hills this month, one of the 12 courses will be an amuse-bouche of red rice cooked in bamboo. It’s a simple dish, but for chef Helene An, it’s loaded with meaning.

Born in 1944 to aristocrats in northern Vietnam, An and her family were forced into exile and had to live like peasants in the jungle.

“She’d always carry a bamboo stick as a little weapon to protect herself,” explains Bosilika An, Helene’s 25-year-old granddaughter who will manage the restaurant’s operations. “The menu is actually a gastro-biography that traces the highlights of my grandmother’s life.”

And what a life it has been. Young Helene and her family were eventually able to return to their home—for a time. When Helene was 11 and the communists took over, the family fled south, eventually settling in Da Lat. There, Helene attended finishing school, learned French, married a wealthy man, and reared three daughters. She was also exposed to various cuisines thanks to her new family’s three chefs—one French, one Chinese, and one Vietnamese.

In 1975, amid the fall of Saigon, the Ans immigrated to San Francisco, moving into a one-bedroom apartment above a deli. Helene quickly learned English, became certified as an accountant, and ran the family deli at night. The Ans slowly added some Vietnamese dishes to the menu, tweaking them to appeal to Americans. After going out for pasta one night in Nob Hill and finding it bland, Helene vowed to do better, and one of her signature dishes—buttery, comforting garlic noodles with crab—was born.

In 1997 the Ans opened Crustacean in Beverly Hills, and it quickly established itself as a celebrity favorite. Earlier this year, the Smithsonian honored Helene for bringing Vietnamese fare to the mainstream U.S., “changing American palates forever.”

The 75-year-old Helene plans for this to be the last restaurant she opens. “We really asked my grandmother, ‘What do you want to be remembered by?’ ” says Bosilika. Helene will be passing the torch to Crustacean’s 32-year-old executive chef, Tony Nguyen, with whom she has been developing the Da Lat Rose menu. While Crustacean is more of an Asian fusion restaurant, Da Lat Rose, which is located upstairs, will be focused on elevating Vietnamese cuisine and showcasing its potential, similar to what Enrique Olvera has done with Mexican cooking. A traditional crab soup will be prepared tableside with noodles made from lobster. The braised beef stew known as bó kho will be made with Wagyu and formed into a tamale of sorts in a nod to L.A. culture.

“They don’t know yet about high-end Vietnamese,” says Helene of Angelenos. “It’s time.”

468 N. Bedford Dr., Beverly Hills

RELATED: Helene An’s French/Vietnamese Cuisine Goes From Beverly Hills to NYC and Back

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