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Ask the Experts: Thien Ho, Xoia Vietnamese Eats

by Jessica on January 28, 2013

thienfamXoia Vietnamese Eats restaurant is a true Echo Park love story. Owners Thien Ho and Jose Sarinana grew up in the neighborhood, met at Belmont high school, completed their undergrad education at USC, got married, had a couple of kids, settled in Angelino Heights. And then decided to open a restaurant. Before stepping into the kitchen full time, Jose had an MFA and an active career as a visual artist, which he maintains despite his current all-consuming occupation. Thanks to an expansive wall at Xoia, tucked into the corner of Sunset and Lemonyne in the heart of Echo Park, one of his large installations has a permanent home, as well as a regular appreciative audience.

In addition to continually pitching in at the restaurant, Thien works full-time as a communications and community relations professional. They have a young daughter (Xoia is her nickname, hence the business name) and an even younger son, and kids are totally welcome in their spiffy, practical, and delicious restaurant. (I’m SO craving some of that food now!) Below is just a snippet of a very long conversation she and I had about raising kids in L.A., food, traveling, how her neighborhood has changed, and much more. It’s inspiring to see entrepreneurs who care so deeply about the community in which they themselves were raised, and have chosen remain a part of.

So basically you now have three jobs? Why did you decide to open a restaurant?

My husband was a practicing artist, got his MFA, and was showing [his art]. He went away to an art residency in Skowhegan in Maine, and somehow he picked up cooking there. It was a totally organic kind of residency, and everything was made for them. But he’d go hungry! We came back and then we had my second kid. That’s why we started. He wanted to have a Vietnamese restaurant; it was very specific to the cuisine.

But he does some fusion-type food, pho tacos and stuff?

That came from the habits at home. We put a LOT of meat into the broth. So what do you do afterwards? There’s brisket, all kinds of stuff. It’s a waste to throw it away, so when he was developing the recipes we started giving brisket to friends. Then he said, I’m going to make a taco. There’s only so much pho you can test out! The kids liked it. A lot of people order it.

So he’s self-taught?

Yes.

When you made the jump into owning a restaurant, what was that like for your family?

I think if we knew how hard it was, we probably wouldn’t have done it. I think we were optimistic and kind of naïve in so many ways. We had this Can Do attitude. We have a lot of family around. My mother-in-law lives in Silver Lake, and my sister and my parents live in Rosemead, and it was convenient for them to help us out. It all worked out. You just make things work.

It was hard. Now when I look back I probably would have done things differently, but I didn’t know. We also built this from scratch. We had an architect work with us laying things out. We just kind of did a lot of stuff on our own, and got help from friends. We were very grassroots about things.

Is having another restaurant like having another child, in a way?

Yes, I definitely feel a lot of responsibility. From the operation side, that’s where Jose is most focused. My concern is, did the servers feel OK with the tips they received? I come here every Saturday night, or at least once a week to manage and keep in touch. But when I’m here there’s always something I want to change! We have a rule now where I can’t change anything unless I tell him.

Did either one of you have operations experience in restaurants?

No.

So how did you choose the location? How did being an Echo Park native affect your restaurant?

We were going to Chinatown, and we’d drive to San Gabriel for Vietnamese food. We really liked this neighborhood and felt there was room for it. Then we were on a date walking to El Prado and we saw this spot, and said, let’s just call. We were talking to the owners within a week.

How do you feel about how Echo Park has changed over the years? You’ve probably seen it transition through a lot of different phases.

It does make me sad to think that [if circumstances were different] we probably couldn’t have bought in our own neighborhood. There’s a loss there, but we wouldn’t have invested all this in the neighborhood if we didn’t really enjoy living here. It’s hard not be empathetic because of us knowing people who have been displaced.

If you do eat out, where do you go?

The kids have gotten into sushi lately. There’s Huarache Azteca [#2] in that place that’s changed so many times. That’s our staple. I like Two Boots. We’ll do brunch at the Brite Spot. But we try to eat home a lot. The kids have this idea that because they’re so comfortable here they can get pretty comfortable at a restaurant. We try to eat home because Jose tries to cook with the kids or have family dinner three times a week.

And then he’ll come back here after? So he’s in the restaurant how many nights a week?

Six. We’ll take Sunday off. There are times when he has to come in. When we first opened we had this idea we’d never see him. We were prepared to have Jose be gone for like, three years! But it all worked out. Considering how much time he spends here and how much work we put into it, I’m happy as a mom of the time they do have together.

Glass half full!

It’s pretty balanced as you can be. I say that cautiously. He drops off the kids, then goes to the market. It’s convenient for him, too.

Are there any places in Echo Park you grew up going to that are still around?

Phnom Penh just closed. My high school friend’s family owned it. Sunset Beer Company used to be a vegetarian Asian place and my family used to go there all the time growing up. And then of course the A-1 market, I’ve been going there since we were kids. A lot of things have changed. I can’t imagine a neighborhood that stays the same all the time.

So what do your kids like to eat?

They will pretty much anything here. They do have their set menu items. It’s always pho, crispy tacos and spring rolls, and lemonade. That’s their staple.

Do you cook at home similar to the restaurant?

I cook at home more comfort food that I grew up with. So I do a lot of caramelized fish, stuff my mom cooked, that kind of Vietnamese comfort food. And Jose does Mexican stuff. Pho is just so hard to make at home!

 

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