Sponsor Family Brings Mekong to Richmond
Bringing Vietnamese Flavor to Richmond
Since coming to Richmond in 1986, one family has created a welcoming space for customers and for employees at their West End restaurant and, more recently, at the brewpub next door. The restaurant, Mekong, garnered national attention for Richmond when it earned the Great American Beer Bar award, a title influenced in part by the ebullient personality of its most publicly visible family member, An Bui.
Among Richmonders, Bui has become known for his contributions to the local beer community, encouraging the budding industry, its entrepreneurs and its fans. Mekong was among the first restaurants in the area to carry a large selection of beer and became a Cheers for local beer lovers.
But none of this would have happened had it not been for the sponsors who welcomed this family when they were forced to flee their home in Vietnam.
Bill Bevins: Today we get a chance to interview two people who years ago tackled a very tough topic, Fred Moore and An Bui. Fred, tell us how you came to meet this gentleman from Vietnam.
Fred Moore: We were members of St. Bridget’s and the church agreed to sponsor a family from Vietnam. We thought it would be a great opportunity for our [two] children and us to get involved.
BB: So immigration was personal to you in the mid-80s?
BB: What kind of work do you do?
FM: I’m a retired OB-GYN. At that time I was active in obstetrics and gynecology.
BB: So you decide to bring this family in from Vietnam. An, this is where you come in. How much English did you speak when you came to Richmond?
AB: [Bui laughs.] “Yes” and “no” were pretty much the only two words I knew!
BB: Well, those are good starting points. So you come to America. How many in your family came?
AB: Three brothers – Liem, Chuong and me – Liem’s wife, Truyen, and her siblings. [My parents and sister came later.]
BB: Did you have a job in Vietnam?
AB: No, I was pretty young. I was trying to help my mom out on the farm at a very young age.
BB: What did you know about Americans?
AB: Nothing. Just busy working on a farm with [my] mom trying to earn a meal for the day, so you don’t have time to think.
Shelly Perkins: Being a child and moving here – I’ve always been impressed by people who do that. That must have been terrifying, fleeing everything that you knew, [to a place with a language] you couldn’t understand. What was that like?
AB: Being very young when we escaped Vietnam, it was kind of like an adventure for me, so fear wasn’t in my mind. Even though we had seven days and seven nights escaping Vietnam out in a boat in the middle of nowhere – lack of food or water – but for me, just being a child, it was fun.
SP: And that transferred over when you got to America?
AB: Yeah, once we got off the boat, it was totally like “OK, where are we now?” We spent six months in Malaysia, and then the U.S. accepted us, which is where Fred comes in. We went to a camp in the Philippines where we spent another six months, and then we got here to the U.S.
SP: Fred, how did you cope with language barriers and cultural differences with this young family?
FM: We just did the best we could. We took what they knew – the “yes” and “no” – and put everything in that context. We had some interesting food issues – well, food experiences. [Bui and Moore laugh.]
BB: Your wife didn’t know what to feed Vietnamese children?
FM: Exactly. On Sundays we would take the kids after church, bring them to our house, and they played with our kids. At lunch time, Karen, my wife, would say, “What would you like? Peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, a hot dog? Well, they didn’t know what a hot dog was. An called them boiling dogs. “I want a boiling dog.” [All laugh.]
AB: So here’s a child who never experienced a hot dog or mustard or Lay’s potato chips. The only words I know are “yes” and “no” so if you give me a plate, I say “yes.”
BB: How was it?
AB: Mustard – I had never had mustard before – it was just an awful, awful thing! And you know, hot dogs, I got used to eating meat with no bone!
SP: Well, they say it’s meat. [All laugh.] So later, you open up one of the most iconic Vietnamese restaurants in Richmond: Mekong.
AB: My dad got here in ’92. He suggested, “You guys should do something [you could do] together.” Plus my sister-in-law, Liem’s wife, was cooking at this Vietnamese place and we thought, maybe we can open up a Vietnamese restaurant.
BB: So the restaurant has done very well. It’s become, as Shelly said, iconic. The family gets to work together. Where did the beer come from? Is beer big in Vietnam?
AB: No. I think it was just a risk that we took. The restaurant opened in ’95. The first two years we had Vietnamese food and wine. But [Mekong] wasn’t very popular with wine because every restaurant had wine. Plus the cuisine that we have, it pairs [better] with beer [than with the wines that were popular locally]. So that’s why we took a risk, and we went a different direction. We started replacing some of the [wine with] Belgian big-format bottles of beer. We built it one [customer] at a time and now it’s become one of those destination places in the U.S.
BB: I [understand that] you won first place in CraftBeer.com’s great American beer bar contest two years in a row.
AB: The first two years we won it. And then the third year, they say, “Well, An has won so many, maybe we should do it by region.” [Bui laughs.] And then we won the region two years.
BB: You did so well with beer that you’ve opened up your own brewpub, is that true?
AB: Yes. We opened The Answer Brewpub about three years ago, and we started brewing beer about two years ago. Right now we brew mostly IPA – really fresh beer – and stout and a little fruity beer, like sour beer with fresh fruit. And we have about 50 guest beers. [Having] guest beers, we pick the style that we want to brew and we don’t have to brew everything.
SP: It truly is a great American story – it all starts with Fred and then your family taking it and making it just amazing.
AB: Yeah, Fred even likes our beer. [All laugh.]
FM: A lot!
AB: It’s great we have that relationship – we share our story, we share the flavor and we share the success. So Fred’s like my role model.
BB: An, one last question. How many children have been born to your family here?
AB: I have three kids – a daughter and two sons. All three were delivered by Fred. [My brothers and sister all have two children.] So, yes, we have lots of kids getting into the business.
BB: Second-generation Americans. We’re proud to have you. Thank you so much for taking some time with us. And Fred, thank you so much for bringing these people to Richmond.
FM: Our pleasure and good fortune.