An Immigrant Couple Lives the American Dream.
In 1975 a woman emigrated from Viet Nam to America with seven of her nine children in search of a better life. The family wound up in Frankfort, KY where they were met by members of Hope Lutheran Church with open arms. It was then that a 12-year old girl named Thao Mai first met Pat and Martha Flynn.
I sat down recently to talk with Thao and her husband - also named Thao (he goes by TT) - at their downtown Mai Saigon Restaurant on St. Clair Street. Pat and Martha joined us. Thao and TT affectionately call the couple “Mom and Dad.” What unfolded was a remarkable story of friendship, love, and the American dream.
Thao and TT met eight years ago when his company sent him to the United States. The couple was married a few years later.
Thao shared with TT that it had always been her mother’s dream to open a restaurant. Thao wanted to make that dream come true. But there was a serious obstacle to overcome first.
Thao had begun having problems with her heart. She’d had a pacemaker put in but it wasn’t working properly. She needed a heart transplant. The restaurant would have to wait.
After transplant was successfully performed in 2012 the couple began working toward the restaurant slowly. “He knew how to cook and I knew how to cook,” says Thao. They started out making sandwiches and egg rolls to sell. Then on the weekends they made soup and people loved it.
“We had three tables and twelve chairs, then six tables, then ten tables,” TT says. “People would come and wait for a seat.”
“Step by Step,” adds Thao smiling.
Their commitment from the beginning has been to create a restaurant offering authentic Vietnamese food. Fresh ingredients are key. Accordingly, they purchase their ingredients one week at a time to insure quality control. They don’t use MSG. “We cook healthy!” asserts Thao. “Nothing frozen. We use fresh vegetables.”
“There are no freezers in Viet Nam,” shared TT. “If you cook something in the morning you might put it in the refrigerator to have for dinner.” If food is not eaten before the end of the day, it’s thrown away.
Pat and Martha, supportive all these years, now occasionally help out at the restaurant. One of the things that Martha emphasized is that the food at Mai Saigon is “not fast food. To enjoy it, it’s going to take a while to prepare.”
“It’s prepared for you!” Thao added.
Sauce is the key to a lot of Vietnamese dishes. Not surprisingly, lots of Americans want soy sauce at first. But once people taste the sauce at Mai Saigon they want more of it. “They say. ‘That sauce is good!’ ” TT says. “I don’t tell them what’s in it,” Thao confides.
Recently Thao had a health scare when there was some leakage around the area of her heart transplant. “I prayed so much I told God, ‘I’m so sorry I call all the time.’ “
The couple was amazed at the community support they received. “Hundreds of people were praying for her,” says Pat. A blood specialist figured out the problem.
TT and Thao take food to the Access Soup Kitchen downtown every Thursday. Not leftovers – they make it fresh. It’s their way of saying thanks.
“I want to give something back to people,” Thao says.
TT adds, “We learned a lesson from mom and dad. If you are kind with people they’ll be kind with you. They become family. They didn’t teach me. They showed me how to do it.”
Pat says, “They’re special people living the American dream and people like to see that.”
“We’re so lucky,” says Thao. Yet after hearing their story one senses that love and hard work, not luck, have been the keys. They are just another example of what makes downtown Frankfort special.
Next month Mai Saigon celebrates its one-year anniversary at the downtown location. They are open for lunch and dinner.