By Vickie Lewis
What better way to honor your mother’s passion for cooking than to open a restaurant named after her, and for her family to work alongside her at the business? That’s exactly what Shelly Nguyen Ha and Cindy Ha did for their mother, Anh, when they opened Anh’s Kitchen on July 23, 2016 in the plaza located just off of the Willow Avenue freeway exit off of Highway 80 in Hercules. Anh’s Kitchen occupies the former Quizno’s Sandwich Shop location in the plaza, just behind Starbucks Coffee.
Shelly and Cindy each have full time jobs in Investment Banking and Accounting, respectively. However, the sisters also share their mother’s love of cooking and overall fascination with food. They’d long contemplated opening a family business, and seized the opportunity to do so when space in this plaza in Hercules became available. As they prepare to celebrate their first business anniversary in July, head chef, Anh, and her family, have garnered quite a following of repeat customers who enjoy the phenomenal tastes of native Vietnamese dishes that Anh has perfected over the years.
Anh is the mother of five children—Shelly being the oldest, and Cindy, the youngest. In between the two girls are three brothers who are not directly affiliated with Anh’s Kitchen. The family is Chinese, and Anh and her husband emigrated from Vietnam in 1980 when Shelly was a young girl, moving around a bit before finally settling in the US. Here, Shelly’s father worked in construction, and Anh initially worked in a sewing factory, having learned that trade from her father. Eventually, Anh opened a sandwich shop/deli in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and worked there for 15 years until a real estate boom, during which her landlord wouldn’t renew her lease. Thereafter, she fulfilled her love of cooking by working in Vietnamese restaurants in SF for the next nine years, prior to the opening of the restaurant in Hercules.
Anh’s Kitchen is a small, casual dine-in and take out restaurant. The inside décor is light and simple, featuring Vietnamese baskets on one wall, and subtle pictures of bamboo on the other. There is table and chair seating for approximately 32 guests, which includes a couple of outdoor tables. The small kitchen sits adjacent to the dining area, so the aromas of the food being prepared waft throughout the restaurant, to the enjoyment of the patrons. The atmosphere is pleasant and friendly, and guests are greeted promptly upon arrival.
My guest and I visited on a Sunday afternoon as the after-church crowd was waning. Anh, Shelly and Cindy were all busy cooking when we arrived, but we were greeted promptly by Bill, Cindy’s fiancé, who works full time at Anh’s kitchen. We were seated across from the kitchen area and soon were sipping on wonderfully cool Thai Iced Tea, which is made with Black Tea and Cream. As we waited for the opportunity to interview the family, we noticed a large plate of food on the table behind us, and hoped we hadn’t interrupted the workers’ lunch break. Bill informed us that the dish was one of Shelly’s creations that is not currently on the menu. When Shelly emerged from the kitchen area, she referred to the dish as Turmeric Fish, and explained that it is one of many new dishes that she, Anh, and Cindy discovered when they traveled for three weeks to Asia before opening the restaurant. Shelly explained that there is variation in the cuisines of North, Central, and South Vietnam. During their journey, they traveled from north to south Vietnam, and to some of the surrounding Asian countries, to gain additional exposure to the dishes served in each region. The Turmeric Fish was a dish they experienced in Hanoi, which is located in North Vietnam. Shelly’s version of the dish was prepared with Rockfish and Catfish topped with fresh dill and onion, accompanied by homemade fish sauce. Shelly gave me and my guest samples of the Turmeric Fish and we both found it to be delicious! Though it is not currently on the menu, it may be added at some point in the future as the young business continues to hone its menu.
The menu at Anh’s Kitchen is somewhat smaller than is typical of similar restaurants. It includes ten appetizers, four to six choices of salads, Banh Mi Sandwiches, and several Noodle Soups, Vermicelli Bowls, and Entrees. The menu has changed only slightly since the restaurant was opened, and although the menu selections may seem a bit limited, there is a great variety of traditional selections for customers to enjoy. Rather than selecting a single item from the menu, my guest and I were treated to smaller samples of many different items so that we could gain a broader exposure to the culinary delights offered at Anh’s Kitchen.
I’ll mention at this point that my guest for this review had never before eaten Vietnamese food, so this was a totally new experience for her. Shelly kindly explained details about all of the items we were served so that we were totally aware of what we were eating, and even shared information about how each of the items was prepared. For starters, we were treated to the Spring Roll appetizer—shrimp, grilled pork, lettuce, and herbs wrapped in rice paper and served with a house-made peanut dipping sauce. As soon as I bit into a Spring Roll, I immediately knew it was the best I’d ever eaten! The fresh, crunchiness of the lettuce and the wonderful flavor of the pork and spices was excellent! And not surprisingly, my guest loved the spring rolls as well—especially the peanut sauce!
Our next sample was a steaming plate of Garlic Noodles. Although these did not appear as a separate appetizer or entrée on the menu, there is an option to substitute Garlic Noodles for rice with entrees for a $2 upcharge. Shelly explained that they use Chow Mein noodles in the preparation of this dish, although for other dishes, such as the Vermicelli Bowls and Pho Noodle Soups, Anh’s uses the thinner, rice noodles. The Garlic Noodles were topped with fresh Parmesan Cheese, which was surprising to me, since I usually associate this with Italian food and restaurants. The garlic flavor of the noodles was pronounced and very delicious, and had similar consistency to thicker spaghetti noodles. Very yummy!
While we were still enjoying the Garlic Noodles, Cindy brought out a beautifully arranged sampler plate of three of their popular entrées–three different meats served with a side of salad, and of course, fish sauce. Shelly told us that fish sauce is “the mother of all sauces” for Vietnamese cuisine and is it served with many different items to enhance the flavors. The fish sauce, and all sauces served at Anh’s Kitchen, are made in-house with fresh ingredients, herbs and spices. Our entrée sampler included Bone-in Pork Chops, Five Spice Chicken, and BBQ Short Ribs. All three of the entrees were delicious and are all items I would absolutely consider ordering when I return to Anh’s Kitchen. I believe my favorite of the three, however, was the pork chops. The flavor of these and the short ribs were rather similar, but I found the pork chops to be a bit meatier and more flavorful and appealing. I really enjoy the combination of spices used in Vietnamese cooking and these really were highlighted in all of the entrees we sampled. Although the fish sauce was good, I chose not to use much of it on the items I sampled, simply because I liked the flavors of the meats without it. The Five Spice Chicken, which is first baked and then fried before serving, had a distinctly different flavor from the pork chops and short ribs. The “five spice” seasoning is a combination of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, anise, and Szechuan peppercorns. The chicken was very tender and delicious, and although the “five spice” flavor is one that I don’t believe I’ve experienced before, I did enjoy it. My guest, who was delighting in all the many wonderful flavors of the new foods she was experiencing, couldn’t offer a favorite entrée selection, as she said that she “loved them all!” Informationally, when ordering entrees from the menu, they are served over rice, accompanied by a fried egg and a side salad—a very hearty meal for a nominal cost ranging between $9 and $13.
The last two menu items to which we were treated were the fresh Mango Salad, and Bo Luc Lac, which is also known as Shaking or Shaken Beef. The Mango Salad was beautifully presented, consisting of thin slivers of pickled carrots, red onions, celery, herbs and crispy shallots, topped with crushed peanuts, and served with three large shrimp chips. I cannot say enough about how fresh and wonderful this salad tasted! The ingredients were crunchy and we enjoyed eating the salad together with the shrimp chips. The blend of flavors was perfect, and this was one of the only plates that was totally clean when we completed our samplings! The Shaken Beef is made with Filet Mignon, and is served on a bed of lettuce with stir fried bell peppers and red onions. I asked Shelly why the dish is called Shaken Beef, and she explained that it is because when the meat is being cooked, it is literally shaken vigorously back and forth in the pan. The Shaken Beef is served with a dipping “sauce”, which is simply a mixture of lime juice and salt and pepper. The beef chunks in this dish were extremely tender and cooked to perfection. The flavor of the meat was exceptional with or without the lime sauce. Shelly explained that all of the meats used for their dishes are marinated for at least 24 hours to intensify the flavors, so it was no wonder that the beef—and all of the other samples—were so delicious! My guest and I also tried samples of the beef and chicken broths used in the Pho Noodle Soups. The broths are made from scratch using beef and chicken bones, which are simmered up to 10 hours and are cooked with onion and cilantro. I preferred the beef broth over the chicken, as it had a heartier flavor, and I look forward to trying a hot bowl of Beef Pho from Anh’s Kitchen sometime in the near future.
Anh’s Kitchen is a caring family’s endeavor to honor their mother, share their combined passion for food and cooking, and expand the culinary options available in the small town of Hercules and the surrounding area. None of the family members involved in the business has been formally trained in cooking, nor have they ever owned or managed a restaurant business. Yet Anh’s Kitchen has had a successful first year, and the family is looking forward to continuing to build on that success in the future. Although their kitchen is small, they are continuing to look at opportunities to add new entrees, and perhaps even offer dessert in the future. Anh’s does not currently offer catering options, but welcomes larger parties in their dining area. They do a robust take-out business, and tend to get very busy during lunch hours when local workers venture out to seek alternatives to fast food. If you’re looking for a great new Vietnamese restaurant with friendly, personalized service, add Anh’s Kitchen to your list of places to try for an upcoming lunch or dinner. The prices are reasonable and the food is authentic and delicious! And although she is a bit shy, say hello to Anh while you’re there, and give your compliments to the chef!
844 Willow Avenue, Suite A3, Hercules | (510) 948-8189 | anhskitchen.com
Sunday through Monday 11:00AM – 9:00PM | Closed Tuesdays