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East West Lifestyle

The House of AN: California’s Culinary Dynasty

August 09, 2018
The vegan hearts of palm crab cake from Crustacean Beverly Hills’ updated menu
The vegan hearts of palm crab cake from Crustacean Beverly Hills’ updated menu

With the remodel of Beverly Hills stalwart Crustacean, the An family hopes to take success to new heights.

Crustacean is a stalwart of Beverly Hills—it’s been in business for over 20 years—but you almost wouldn’t recognize the restaurant with its recent remodel. Gone is the distinctly oriental interior, with its dark wood balustrades and paper lanterns (although its famous koi river, which winds its way through the restaurant, is still there). In its place is a bright, lushly modern interior with a beautiful new bar and millennial-pink velvet accents. It boasts a revamped menu to match its new interior, although signature dishes like the garlic noodles remain staples. Crustacean is also now one floor, with the second level serving as a separate restaurant concept called Da Lat Rose (not much was revealed about it, except that the experience was going to be “much more elevated”).

For any business, 20 years is a long time to remain operational, but especially so for those in the restaurant industry—70 percent of restaurants that make it past the first year close within five years of opening. However, for Crustacean, it isn’t just about survival—it’s about growth.

The new bar at Crustacean Beverly Hills
The new bar at Crustacean Beverly Hills

“We don’t want to stay stagnant. Stagnant is never good for business,” says Elizabeth An, CEO of restaurant group House of AN, and daughter of family matriarch and head chef, Helene An. “Towards the end, we felt that we were not attracting new clientele; we weren’t attracting the next generation.” However, with the completion of the remodel, Crustacean now has the “legs to grow for another 20 years.”

A fusion entrepreneur

The House of AN may be a culinary dynasty four generations in the making, but success certainly didn’t come easy to the An women. Helene, the culinary mastermind behind the House of AN restaurants and nicknamed the “mother of fusion,” fled the Communist takeover of Vietnam with her entire family to San Francisco in 1975. All they had was the small 20-seat deli that Diana An, Helene’s mother-in-law, had fortuitously purchased a few years prior, which they successfully converted into their first House of AN restaurant, Thanh Long.

However, when they opened the first Crustacean in San Francisco in 1991, they received negative reviews from food critics. The restaurant opened at a time when fusion wasn’t a well-known concept, and few people understood what it was or what it aimed to do. “It was not well received because they expected us to be Vietnamese, and [Helene’s] cuisine is always fusion,” points out Elizabeth.

Chef Helene An
Chef Helene An
I absorbed whatever I learned from my family and just spontaneously created something that I think will be good, in taste [and] for health.

-Helene An

Luckily, the people loved their food. Helene’s cuisine is mainly a fusion of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French (before the Communist takeover, Helene was raised in a prominent Vietnamese family that employed three cooks—one Chinese, one French, and one Vietnamese). Although the critics didn’t understand it at the time, to Helene it made sense.

“For most American people, if I do pure Vietnamese, I don’t think they could eat it,” she says about that time.

Now, of course, Crustacean is a California institution, and its food is loved by many—including the critics. “The same press that gave us a bad review basically heralded my mother as the ‘mother of fusion cuisine’ seven years later,” Elizabeth shares.

Changing what Vietnamese food means

Part of Crustacean and Helene’s genius is the ability to capture the essence of Vietnamese cuisine in a way that would appeal to the largest possible number of people.

“She created a cuisine that would give credit and heritage to Vietnamese cuisine, but do it in a way that people understand,” explains Elizabeth. “To us, if you want to get a message across, and you want someone to be exposed to your culture and receive it, you must first do it in a way that people understand it.”

The new tuna cigar dish at Crustacean Beverly Hills
The new tuna cigar dish at Crustacean Beverly Hills

However, Helene says that inspiration for her dishes comes mainly from her own heritage of growing up in French colonial Vietnam. “I absorbed whatever I learned from my family and just spontaneously created something that I think will be good, in taste [and] for health,” she shares. “It was ‘modernized’ already when I came here [to California].”

For instance, one of Helene’s most popular dishes at Crustacean San Francisco is called “Helen’s ravioli,” which is based off of banh cuon, which is a traditional Vietnamese steamed rice noodle roll. However, instead of using the usual fish sauce, she substituted the dish with beurre blanc, a French butter sauce. But Helene didn’t stop there—she also took it to the next step by using sesame oil instead of butter for the sauce, and ho fun skin (a Chinese ingredient) for the rice noodle roll.

“That’s a classic example of perfect fusion in our cuisine,” Elizabeth points out.

Generations of growth

The House of AN is a culinary dynasty built up by four generations of resilient women, who, with each generation, expanded the An empire—and occasionally clashed over color schemes.

“Our family is all strong, A-type personalities,” says Elizabeth. “Each of us thinks we’re right, but at the end of the day…we respect the elders. My mom’s word is the final answer—but there isn’t a new opening or new concept that we don’t fight over.”

Elizabeth says that when she first became CEO of the company, it took a while to get her family behind her plans for expansion. “It’s because we’re dealing with four different generations,” she says. “As an immigrant family, you’re afraid of losing everything. For Mom and Grandma (Diana), when she was alive, this (Thanh Long and Crustacean San Francisco) was enough. When I came around, I wanted to grow it, and then my daughter (Bosilika) comes in and now she’s another extreme!”

Crustacean Beverly Hills’ renovated interior
Crustacean Beverly Hills’ renovated interior

Elizabeth ultimately expanded Crustacean to its second location in Beverly Hills, where they have hosted celebrity events like the Women in Film Pre-Oscar Cocktail Party in March, as well as added to their portfolio AnQi in Orange County, which East West Bank helped finance with a commercial loan. However, it is Elizabeth’s daughter, Bosilika, who is working to take Crustacean to the next level.

“We’re looking a lot to the millennial generation, as far as social media and how that comes into your dining experience,” Bosilika explains. “What dishes will do well on Instagram so that our millennial diners are satisfied? They care now not just about if it’s fresh, if it tastes good, but also if they’re going to get that photo-worthy moment.”

That sort of strategic thinking led to changes in the menu, with additions such as the “tuna cigars,” which are crispy tuna eggrolls that arrive in a cigar box filled with Vietnamese wooded smoke, and a steak that is cooked and served on a Himalayan salt block. It’s these sorts of considerations that Bosilika says is key to appealing to a new generation of diners, and the kind of thinking that could move forward their global aspirations.

“My mother took [Crustacean] to a couple additional units,” Bosilika says. “But now that we have such a strong brand, the real question is: Do we want to share that with the rest of the world? How do we want to do that? That’s the next generation of Crustacean—grow with that expansion, national and international.”

What to order at Crustacean Beverly Hills

Of course, everyone recommends the garlic noodles, which is one of the few items that made it onto the Secret Kitchen menu that features only the best and most popular dishes. That was also the first dish Helene created, the “mother of fusion” says.

Garlic noodles from the Secret Kitchen at Crustacean Beverly Hills
The famous garlic noodles from the Secret Kitchen
She created a cuisine that would give credit and heritage to Vietnamese cuisine, but do it in a way that people understand.

-Elizabeth An

But for those looking to try something new, Elizabeth says one of her favorite new dishes is the braised lamb dumpling in tom yum broth, one of the latest dishes to receive the fusion treatment. “Now, tom yum is Thai, but Mom took the Thai concept and made it a little bit more Vietnamese, and the dumpling is inspired by Chinese food—the xiaolongbao,” she says.

For Bosilika, her favorites include the aforementioned tuna cigars and Himalayan salt block steak, as well as the new vegan “crab cake” made entirely out of hearts of palm. She also loves the beef nem nuong roll, which holds some special memories for her. “Nem is a traditional Vietnamese dish,” she shares. “It’s something I grew up eating and going to Westminster with my grandfather to buy, so to see my grandmother’s version of it is really something fun.”

And as for Chef Helene, it was impossible for her to choose. “I love everything!” she exclaims. “Everything I put on the menu is my favorite.”