Two generations of Vietnamese restaurants on Central Avenue

Central Avenue, the center of our global community

On the other side on bustling Central Avenue, there are two businesses that serve hot and delicious food daily.

At first glance, they may seem similar – both are restaurant owned by Vietnamese immigrants – but their respective missions set them apart.

Van Loi Barbecue attracts old-fashioned Charlottes who want to revisit the traditional tastes of their countries. They eat succulent pork and ducks and dream of homes they left behind.

But their children, some of whom have never known their parents’ countries, go to Central Tea House for their famous bubble tea and pan mei.

Where these two worlds collide – immigrants navigate their place in Charlotte through food and a second generation savor memories of the places where their parents grew up.

Central Tea House

If you ask Phu Trinh how he went from banking to starting a tea shop, he will tell you, “Well, one thing led to another.”

Trane moved to Charlotte nearly two decades ago after spending much of his childhood in the shipping city Newport News, Virginia. Train said his father, who was in the South Vietnamese Army, took advantage of the opportunity to move his family to the United States to escape communism. Trinh was seven years old when they arrived.

He doesn’t remember much from his childhood in Virginia – just how hard his parents worked and how lonely he felt.

“It was just a lot of struggles,” he said. Nobody in town is like his family.

So when Trine moved to Charlotte, he was struck by the strong presence of the Vietnamese community.

Central Tea House at Phu Trinh serves Vietnamese Banh Mi and Charlotte’s boba. Melissa Melvin Rodriguez

Between banking and a tea shop, Trinh worked at Walmart, worked at his in-laws’ Giant Penny grocery store and even did nails for a few years. Then, for about five years, he stayed home with his three daughters – until March 2019, when he opened Central Tea House.

During his time in Charlotte, he saw a younger Asian generation in Charlotte who wanted more options for boba, along with older adults who also wanted traditional food. Trinh wanted to open a store where everyone would be welcome.

Three years later, Trinh’s Tea House offers every color, flavor and consistency of tea, from mango sorbet to avocado smoothies, along with classic Vietnamese dishes like banh mi. Behind the counter, his daughters help mix drinks and take orders in English and Vietnamese.

He says he tries to put his own style into different types of tea recipes to meet the needs of each customer.

High school and college students gather at the store after classes, passing multi-colored cups filled with tapioca pearls and fruit jelly among each other, while weekends see the store filled with families of different generations, finding something on the menu to enjoy.

“Bubble tea has no age limit,” Trine said.

Trine hopes his younger customers won’t just come for tea.

“We hope they realize what food or drink represents,” he said. “They come to experience … the culture.”

A group of young friends play chess while drinking boba tea at Central Tea House on Mondays in Charlotte. Owner Phu Trinh keeps games to encourage customers to stay and have something fun to do while they eat Banh Mi and drink one of their 144 different teas and juices.

Van Lowe Chinese BBQ

A few dozen ducks, golden brown roasters, line the window of Van Loi Chinese BBQ.

The space is only the length of a narrow aisle, but it’s where about 400 ducks and 25 pigs are roasted each week.

Nguyen Thanh-Son bought the store a little over six years ago, after working there for over 20 years.

After a decade of his life in Charlotte, he returned to Vietnam, met his wife, Phu Lan-Anh, and submitted the papers needed to bring her to the United States. It arrived in 2010.

Van Loi Chinese BBQ Company sells whole roasted duck. Melissa Melvin Rodriguez

After the death of the previous owner of the shop, the hand of the shop changed several times. But Than-Son says its high-quality cooking and ingredients have kept customers over the years. He kept the name from the previous owners, but focuses more on traditional Vietnamese food.

The food served at Van Loi isn’t just casual comfort food – they’re traditional festive dishes, meant to fill bellies at the most joyous moments in people’s lives. Hue’s Dock or Vitamin Dock and roast pigs and ducks are practically in demand at weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays.

When people take a bite out of the pig and duck in Van Loi, Fu said they were transported back to their home country and some of their happiest memories. This is why premium ingredients are so important.

Than Son Nguyen, left, and his wife, Lan Anh Phu, own Van Loi in Charlotte. Melissa Melvin Rodriguez

Pho estimates that half of his customers are Vietnamese, and many of them drive four or five hours for a barbecue. According to her, they are the only shop that serves roast duck and pig.

“It is a unique and customized traditional Vietnamese barbecue food,” she said. “There are many Pho restaurants, but we are special.”

Their process takes hours. The pig must be marinated a full day in advance, and several hours later to roast it, while the hundreds of ducks they make each week take about 45 minutes to roast each.

Fu said that older customers tend to prefer less fatty cuts of meat due to their health, while younger customers don’t mind “a little fat here and there.” But she discovered that the young people who enjoy their food are the ones who grew up with it and introduced it to it when they were young, like 8-year-old daughter Fu.

“Customer satisfaction is my ultimate goal,” said Thanh Son. “It gives me the satisfying feeling of knowing that my customers appreciate my cooking.”

Fu said her husband cooks “with his heart and his love, not just the ingredients,” and their customers can tell.

“This is their comfort food in this new land,” she said.

The whole Vietnamese roast duck is on display at the window of Van Loi Chinese BBQ in Charlotte. Melissa Melvin Rodriguez

This story was originally published June 23, 2022 5:30 a.m.

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Devna Boss is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer newspaper covering underrepresented communities, racism and social justice. In June 2020, Devna covered the George Floyd protests in Charlotte and the aftermath of a mass shooting on Beatrice Ford Road. She has previously covered education in Newark, New Jersey, where she wrote about the disparities in the state’s largest school district. Devna is a Mississippi native, alumna of the University of Mississippi and a 2020-2021 Reporter for Squad America member.

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