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Trading On 2 Cultures : Immigrants: A few Vietnamese entrepreneurs are launching innovative businesses that combine the customs of their native and adopted countries.

January 03, 1991|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the Vietnamese answer to microwave dinners.

For $8 a night, the A-Dong Restaurant in Tustin will deliver to your home a three-course dinner for two packed in a special thermal container. All you have to do is cook rice. The next day, a restaurant employee picks up the container and drops off a fresh meal.

In Vietnam, they call this home cooking service com thang, or monthly rice. In Southern California, these Asian meals-on-wheels have become big business for refugee entrepreneurs. From the San Fernando Valley to southern Orange County, roughly 50 restaurants and free-lance cooks compete to deliver thousands of meals to Asian neighborhoods each night.

"People order our meals out of convenience, because cooking Vietnamese food is time consuming, and they are working people. . . ," says A-Dong owner and chef Oanh Kim Huynh, 32. "They get nutritious food at a low price, and the meals are delivered to their doorsteps five nights a week."

Com thang is by no means the only entrepreneurial twist introduced by the Vietnamese refugees who began to arrive in Southern California 15 years ago.

Like many immigrant groups before them, the first Vietnamese to settle in Orange County opened mom-and-pop stores, restaurants, import-export companies and sewing shops. By the early 1980s, many had opened computer-assembly, furniture and machine shops, bookstores, video stores, insurance companies and travel agencies, and the Little Saigon shopping district, now home to about 1,500 businesses, was born.

But contrary to stereotypes of Asians as entrepreneurial whizzes, the majority of young Vietnamese Americans are collecting advanced degrees and going to work for large corporations or entering the professions, says Ho Ngoc Au, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce of America.

Au, a former South Vietnamese deputy minister of economics now living in Manhattan Beach, would like to see more Vietnamese Americans start their own businesses. But he fears that childhoods shaped by war and teen-age years spent as refugees have made many of these young people cautious.

"The Vietnamese here by and large go to school to be doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers . . . " Au says. "It's less risky."

Still, a small crop of 30ish refugees, many armed with American educations and work experience, are taking the entrepreneurial plunge.

Some have launched innovative businesses that straddle their cultures.

Here are portraits of four such start-up businesses and their operators:

The family behind A-Dong's com thang company; the founder of the first telephone dating service for Vietnamese-American singles; two brothers who grew up reading French fashion magazines in Saigon and now design sportswear, and a couple who run a nursery specializing in rare Asian fruit trees.

Early in the morning, the kitchen of the A-Dong restaurant is jammed with giant colanders of chopped bok choy cabbage, huge bowls of meat and vegetables and about a dozen busy workers.

Dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and an apron, Huynh hovers over two giant woks, cooking food for 700. The day's dinner menu is soup made with daikon, an Asian radish; beef sauteed with mustard greens, tomato, green onion and oyster sauce, and charbroiled chicken with vegetables.

Prices per night, including delivery, range from $5.50 for one person to $14 for four. A-Dong's prices are on the high side, because some competitors who cook at home offer dinners for as little as $3 per person per night, says Huynh's husband, Dinh Trung Huynh, 39.

"Our price is almost double--but you pay for what you get," Huynh says. "Our vegetables, we have to buy the best ones to keep them longer, because we deliver at 3 o'clock and people eat it at 9 or 10 o'clock. We don't use any frozen food."

In a strategy used by many immigrant entrepreneurs, the Huynhs stay competitive by banding together with relatives to form a buying collective. Each day, Dinh Huynh orders thousands of pounds of meat, chicken, fish and vegetables from wholesalers, and arranges to split the food with four other com thang businesses run by relatives in Canoga Park, Monterey Park, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

By buying in bulk, he says, the restaurants can sometimes get discounts of up to 30%. In addition, several Asian meat suppliers trim the fat and cut the meat into wok-sized pieces, sparing his busy kitchen workers a time-consuming chore.

A-Dong's storefront has a few tables, and also sells noodles and fast food to go. But the main business is delivering 100 lunches a day, most of them to offices near the Tustin restaurant, and 600 dinners, mostly to Asian families from El Toro to Norwalk.

In Vietnam, com thang meals were delivered by bicycle. Most of the customers were students or young workers who could not afford apartments with kitchens.

In America, however, the meals arrive by mini-van, and many of the customers are families with working women who do not have time to cook.

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