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Hurricane Sandy lashes Philadelphia, but restaurant keeps serving

October 29, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • Some East Coast store owners kept doors open to help nearby residents who needed food and water with Hurricane Sandy drawing near.
Some East Coast store owners kept doors open to help nearby residents who… (Michael S. Wirtz, Philadelphia…)

PHILADELPHIA--Through the driving rain and the deep gray gloom, the bright orange restaurant sign shone like a beacon Monday: "Vietnam."

The entire northeast and mid-Atlantic may be paralyzed by the monster hybrid storm known as Sandy, but the Vietnam Restaurant remains open for business. It plans to stay open for dinner Monday evening, when the storm is expected to make landfall, bringing sustained winds of up 60 mph to Philadelphia’s downtown Chinatown section.

The region’s trains and subways are shut down. The airport is closed. So are offices and schools. Some power lines are down. Some roads are closed by rising floodwaters. Trucks are banned from wind-whipped bridges. Shelters are filling up.

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And even though the storm is expected to wallop Philadelphia even harder by Monday night, perhaps bringing the city to its knees by Tuesday, the restaurant plans to stay open for lunch and dinner Tuesday. 

"Only having no electricity or gas would close me down,’’ said the irrepressible Benny Lai, who owns the restaurant, in Chinatown, and a similar eatery in West Philadelphia.

Emergency management authorities have warned of widespread power outages from trees and power lines ripped down by gale-force winds. Even then, Lai said, he would try to stay open under generator power.

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In every hurricane or blizzard, a handful of deeply rooted neighborhood businesses somehow remain open. Many are of the mom-and-pop variety, like Vietnam, opened in 1984 by Lai’s parents, immigrants from Vietnam. (Lai arrived in the U.S. as a 12-year-old).

In Center City Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, most shops and businesses were shut down tight against a relentless all-day rainstorm and fierce winds that howled through the narrow streets. But the lights were on at the Old Nelson Food Market on Chestnut Street, where employee Qing Yang struggled to serve an onslaught of customers.

Like Benny Lai’s diners, most of the people lining up for bottled water and hot sandwiches at Old Nelson are longtime local neighbors. That’s the main reason the establishment, a 24-hour source of snacks, beverages and groceries, has remained open during the worst storm in years, Yang said.

"These are our neighbors – they depend on us,’’ she said, gesturing to young urban hipsters lined up to buy canned soup, ice, water, milk and eggs as the cash register clicked and clanged with each exchange.

Old Nelson is a neighborhood fixture, run as a family business the last five years, Yang said. Most of the seven employees are relatives, staffing the grocery in rotating shifts from homes in nearby northeast Philadelphia.

If the power stays on, Yang said, the store hopes to remain open Tuesday and into Tuesday night, when the cumulative effects of the storm are most likely to be felt.

"We were a little worried about opening today, but now I think we’ll try to stay open as long as we can,’’ Yang said.

At the Vietnam restaurant, only three tables were filled at lunch Monday. But the spring rolls were crisp, the barbecue platter was fresh and the signature spicy chicken soup, known to some regulars as Dave and Rick’s soup, was hot and savory.

The restaurant stayed open during a ferocious blizzard last winter, Lai said. His regulars wiped him out of hot soup – 40 gallons' worth. He sells only 30 gallons of soup on a typical winter day.

On Monday, Lai drove his four-wheel drive vehicle to South Philadelphia to ferry a couple of waiters to the Chinatown restaurant. They normally take the subway, which was closed. Lai planned to drive them back home late Monday night through streets swollen with rain.

Lai was expecting another big rush of locals for Monday dinner, and he had plenty of soup on hand. He felt an obligation to stay open, he said, especially since most other Chinatown restaurants were closed by the storm.

As the rain and wind intensified Monday afternoon, the windows of the restaurant were streaked with moisture. The fading gray skies grew dark and ominous. But the handful of customers inside could clearly see, through the gloaming, a small white sign taped to the door of a competing restaurant across the street. It read: CLOSED.

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