No great crowds are beating a path to the door of the unpretentious Hoang Mai Restaurant on North Sheridan, but the faithful claim that its food and service are unparalleled among Vietnamese establishments.

And that is no small achievement, because there’s plenty of competition. The area around Argyle, from Sheridan to Broadway, is a veritable little Saigon, with hundreds of Vietnamese residents and dozens of Viet stores, including no less than ten well-patronized restaurants.

“There are so many good places,” says Phuong Chung, an adjustment counselor for the Vietnamese Association of Illinois. “But Hoang Mai is special; it’s my favorite.” The owners, who are grateful just to be alive, never dreamed they would one day find themselves on the cutting edge of culinary artistry.

Perhaps the most telling endorsements are the silent ones: almost every day, proprietors of other local Vietnamese restaurants can be spotted enjoying meals at Hoang Mai. Sometimes they ask to eat in the kitchen so they won’t be so visible. “Oh yes,” says Trong Bieu, owner of a gift shop in the area. “I see restaurant owners in there having dinner all the time. It’s quite a common sight.”

“The Vietnamese tell me it’s the best food in the community,” says Lisa Gershenson, owner of a north-side catering service and lover of Vietnamese cooking. “The other owners eat there, I think, because of the quality. Everything is prepared with love.”

Vietnamese food, appropriately enough, is somewhere between Chinese and Thai–more zing than Chinese, less sting than spicy Thai. Vietnam dishes, says Gershenson, are “more sophisticated and complex” than other Oriental food, often combining cooked and raw ingredients in a single dish and using lighter and healthier seasonings that provide a brighter taste. The result is a happy meld of Chinese, Thai, and French influences.

The meld at Hoang Mai is the responsibility of Mai Tran, who with her husband, Hoang Lam, opened the place in October 1988. The always smiling, 43-year-old Mai, whose English is still wobbly, is universally acknowledged by patrons as a perfectionist in cooking and service. The rolls have to be just crunchy enough, never soggy, or she throws them away. The crepes must have just the right consistency and flavor, the soups must be served only at the proper temperature and in the appropriate Viet serving dish.

Mai’s determination to get it right is one reason that business is still limited. Hoang and Mai have never advertised their establishment for fear a heavy demand would force them to hire less competent and dedicated cooks. Mai now has three who share her passion. The Lams’ two sons, Tuan, 18, who attends De Paul University, and Kiet, 17, an honors student at Lane Tech High School, regularly serve as waiters.

The Lam family members are themselves a testimony to unbounded energy and human endurance. They are Vietnamese boat people who have been in this country less than ten years. Hoang, now 43, was in the South Vietnamese army during the war, from 1969 to 1975. When the South fell to the Viet Cong, he spent two years of hard labor in a Communist “reeducation” camp. The lessons did not take. On his release, he, Mai, and their two small children saved money to try to bribe their way out of the country. Six escape attempts failed, but the seventh succeeded.

Jammed on a small open boat with 20 other refugees, the Lams headed for Thailand. When their food and water were gone after ten days at sea, they almost despaired. To make matters worse, they were intercepted by Thai fishermen who robbed them of their meager belongings. “We were lucky,” says Hoang, an optimist. “They didn’t kill us or rape the women. If the Viet Cong had caught us, we’d be dead. And we finally made it to land and safety.”

Six months after the ordeal, in 1980, the Lams emigrated to the United States under the sponsorship of a relative in Chicago. Hoang, who spoke only French and Vietnamese, studied English at Truman College and electrical engineering at the DeVry Institute of Technology. For the last seven years he has been an electrical technician at Motorola in Schaumburg. He works there–by his own choice–at least 65 hours every week. “I surprised myself at how easy I learn and how much energy I have,” he says. Hoang usually rises about 4 AM and gets home as late as 10 PM

The whole point of his killing schedule, he notes, has been to save enough money to start and maintain the restaurant. From the time of their arrival in Chicago, the Lams had taken notice of how eagerly–and often–friends and relatives arrived at their apartment for one of Mai’s extraordinary dinners and her Viet hospitality. “Everything was so beautifully prepared and decorated with such pride, it seemed natural that she should open a restaurant,” says Trudi Langendorf, a former staff member of the Vietnamese Association who has been mightily impressed with the Lams’ industry. “There’s care in everything they do.”

The restaurant, located in a former thrift shop on a less-than-affluent strip, is anything but impressive on the outside. But Mai’s touch is all over the 17-table interior, from the authentic Viet decorations to the clean-enough-to-eat-off-of floor. The menu, in keeping with Oriental tradition, provides lots of choices–181 items by count. They range from spring rolls (leaf lettuce ingeniously wrapped around vermicelli, shrimp, pork, and coriander) through all kinds of soups (one combo soup comes in a fire pot with a burning charcoal in the middle and includes vegetables, shrimp, pork, beef, and squid), a huge list of entrees (fried catfish with ginger is a specialty), and exotic, unpronounceable desserts (one incorporates red beans and jelly in coconut milk). Prices are reasonable, with meat or shrimp platters running around $6.

Hoang says the family is here to stay. “We like this country,” he says. “And besides, if we went back, we’d be thrown in jail.” Neither Hoang nor Mai seem concerned that their little place hasn’t gotten rave reviews in any trend-setting publications. Their pride in the restaurant’s food and service is palpable. “We work hard while we’re still young,” says Hoang. “We save something for the children. then maybe we retire.”

Hoang Mai Restaurant, 5020 N. Sheridan Road, is open from 10 AM to 10 PM every day except Monday. Phone 561-3700 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.