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Creating his own American dream, Sioux City native reflects on life as a 'restaurant kid'

Creating his own American dream, Sioux City native reflects on life as a 'restaurant kid'

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Tony Ho Tran

A journalist whose work has appeared in Playboy, The Huffington Post and the Chicago Defender, Tony Ho Tran has recently written about his life growing up as a "restaurant kid" at Sioux City's Da Kao Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant. 

Tony Ho Tran started writing the "great American novel" at the smallest table at Da Kao, the popular Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant his family owned for more than two decades. 

Tran guessed he was about 6 or 7 years old at the time.

"It was me, my brother and cousins sitting at a small table," the now 27-year-old explained. "If we weren't in school, we were at the restaurant. This was where we did our homework, read, draw or, if our parents really wanted us to be quiet, play on laptops or on our Gameboys."

Tran would also dream of a more creative life while seated in the big red-brick building with a massive green sign.

Da Kao delivery boys

Tony Ho Tran worked as a busboy and waiter in Da Kao, a popular Westside restaurant, from the age of six to the time that he went off to the University of Iowa.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT FROM A REAL-LIFE 'RESTAURANT KID'

In other words, he grew up a "restaurant kid" -- one of those children you'd see at immigrant family owned Chinese, Vietnamese or Hispanic hole-in-the-walls.

For Tran, Da Kao came to represent "a daycare, workplace, library, study area, nap area and hangout spot, all rolled into one."

"And I hated it," he admitted, many years later.

Tran, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Playboy, Huffington Post and the Chicago Post, recently wrote the essay, "Confessions of a Restaurant Kid," for diaCritics, a blog that showcases voices and stories from Vietnamese and Southeast Asian writers, artists and culture-makers.

Da Kao delivery boys

Tony Ho Tran (right), with his younger brother and cousin in their natural environment: the dining room at Da Kao Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant.

Hate may be too strong of a word, even though bad memories stick with a person more than the good ones.

The best memory? Tran said it was being part of his family's American dream.

LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM, ONE PHO ORDER AT A TIME

In their native Vietnam, Tran's parents experienced economic hardships, political unrest as well as the Fall of Saigon. 

Moving to the United States represented their shot at personal freedom and entrepreneurship. 

da kao front

Tony Ho Tran's family owned Da Kao, the popular 800 West 7th St. restaurant for more than two decades. 

Born in Pittsburgh, Tran was an infant when his family made the move to the Midwest.

Initially, Tran's mom, dad, aunts and uncles made their living at meatpacking plants. Eventually, his dad got a job making Chinese food at one of Sioux City's Hy-Vee stores.

"That was actually my first memory of the food industry," Tran said. "Watching dad while he worked at Hy-Vee." 

However, working for meat processors or chain grocery store kitchens was simply a means to an end. The family scrimped and saved every penny in order to start their own business.

LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE, PICK UP TIPS 

When Tran's family opened Da Kao in 1994, they certainly weren't the only Chinese restaurant in town. Over time, the quaint cafe on a busy thoroughfare eventually became the city's biggest and most successful Asian eatery.

Meatballs - DaKao

Pho Bo Vien from Da Kao Chinese & Vietnamese Restaurant.

Or as the Weekender used to call it in less politically correct times (say as recently as 2016 or so), Da Kao became the perennial Siouxland's Choice for "Best Oriental Restaurant."

Ugh.

"My parents loved it every time the Siouxland's Choice Award would come out," Tran recalled. "They'd hang up every certificate for everyone to see ... even if the proper term was 'Asian' restaurant."

Yes, we know. Yes, we're so sorry.

While the grown-ups would beam with pride over their achievements, they knew it came from long hours, busy days and hard, back-breaking work.

Da Kao Vietnamese food

Everything goes better with fish sauce, including Da Kao's fried spring rolls.

Let's face it, what draws a family closer than a common cause? In other words, table seven needs to be bused and make it snappy!

"Child labor laws don't exist to immigrant families," Tran said. "Not when there's food to be served, drinks to be poured and money to be made."

Indeed, family owned eateries are a big reason why a lot of Vietnamese kids -- and their elders -- learn English. You need to take orders and collect tips.

Tran joked that his first word as a baby was "bo" -- the Vietnamese term for "tip." His first sentence: "Would you like white rice or fried rice with your order?" 

THREE ESSENTIAL PHRASES EVERY 'RESTAURANT KID' NEEDS TO KNOW

According to Tran, every "restaurant kid" needs to know three essential phrases to get by in America: "How are you today?" "It was great meeting you and I hope to see you again," and, most important, "Sorry, we only carry Pepsi products."

Da Kao Vietnamese food

Com Xao Thap Cam is a stir fry, served with pork, veggies and steamed rice.

Another teachable trait? Learning to do math in your head.

"I learned division calculating how to split the tips with waitresses," Tran said. "I learned multiplication calculating tax into a customer's check."

Plus when Tran was going to school, Da Kao became a favorite go-to for his buddies.

"They got a behind-the-scene look at a Vietnamese restaurant," he said. "It was cool for them."

But when his friends were off to learning programs or Lake Okoboji vacation homes in the summer, Tran had to remain at the restaurant.

"Being a 'restaurant kid' made your future assured," he said. "Very few 'restaurant kids' want to become 'restaurant adults.'"

Tran, his brother and their cousins certainly didn't want that life.

Graduating from the University of Iowa, Tran now makes his living writing content for businesses in Chicago. Others in his family are also pursuing similar professional routes.

SAYING GOODBYE, EXORCISING GHOSTS -- AND BANH MI -- OF THE PAST

Nearly a year ago, Tran's parents decided to sell Da Kao while settling into semi-retirement.

Tran admitted he didn't know how to feel when his mom told him the news.

"Da Kao was the very reason my family was able to live and succeed and thrive in this country," he said. "It was also the reason why my family fought and didn't speak to one another for months on end."

Indeed, the restaurant gave Tran with the work ethic, the confidence and the pride to pursue his own version of the American dream.

Alas, it wasn't the same dream his family worked so hard to achieve.

Walking into Da Kao when it was changing ownership was an eye-opener.

Here was the spot that Tran's uncle accidentally dropped pho when he was 4 years old. This was also the spot where he and his family alternately learned to love and hate one another.

RECIPE FOR LIFE IS JUST A PHONE CALL AWAY

Then Tran passed by the table that he had used for sketching and dreaming and writing the Great American Novel so many years before.

This table was now occupied by the daughter of the new owner. Yes, she was, now, a new "restaurant kid."

"Can you feel bittersweet over about an experience you both loved and hated?" Tran asked himself, after bidding farewell to Da Kao. "Da Kao became like a member of my family. Only it was a member of the family who frustrated you with so many demands."

Tran hated Da Kao at times and loved it at others. Now, it was time to close that chapter of the book.

Well, maybe not. 

Tran still needs to call his mom for a favorite Da Kao recipe. You never know what you'll miss until it goes away. 

Our every picture of Siouxland food (and drink) in 2020

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