ENCINITAS — The torch of the popular Vietnamese eatery, Kim’s Restaurant, has been passed to a new generation.
In 1986, Kim Doan opened the restaurant in The Lumberyard, which, at the time, was considered Encinitas’ newest and most exclusive mall. Six months ago Doan sold it to her younger sister, Kim Nguyen, who owns Kim’s Alterations with husband, John Nguyen, a couple of blocks away on Coast Highway.
“I bought the business because my daughter, Xuan, said, ‘Mother, I really want this restaurant,’” Kim Nguyen recalled. “She worked here since she was 15 and loved it. At first customers worried that the food wouldn’t be the same, but my sister trained her so well that they couldn’t tell the difference.”
Xuan is managing the business with fiancé, Alex Stauffer, who met Xuan six years ago when he was a patron. They became engaged last November and plan to marry next year. Alex is a local, born and raised in Carlsbad, and a graduate of the Army-Navy Academy, who left his job with The Salk Institute to embark on a new career in the restaurant business.
“We’ve done some subtle remodeling, to let customers know that there is a new owner, such as reupholstering the chairs from pink and blue to brown, and installing new carpets and a countertop,” he said.
Kim Nguyen said her sister, who is seven years older, wanted to sell the restaurant because she was tired after 27 years. Nguyen added that she’ll be onsite when time permits to visit her daughter, and greet customers.
“I have many customers from my alterations business who want to support my new restaurant,” she added.
In 1980, the sisters fled Viet Nam, to escape communism, and settled in South Carolina where a friend of Doan’s husband, Diep Doan, agreed to sponsor them.
“We had friends from Viet Nam who settled in San Diego and at the end of 1981 we decided to move the family here because of the weather,” Kim Doan said.
The sisters drew upon their culinary experience, which they learned from their mother who was known for her cooking and entertaining, by working for a Vietnamese restaurant near their home in Southeast San Diego. Doan worked as a cook and Nguyen her helper.
“In 1986 we were looking to start our own restaurant and a realtor showed us different areas around San Diego County,” Doan said. “We fell in love with Encinitas. We had been to many places in the U.S. but had never seen a place like this.”
Once they opened the doors to Kim’s Restaurant, there was no turning back.
“We were busy from the beginning because people who live on the coast appreciate vegetables and healthy food,” Kim Nguyen explained.
Rose Marie Polito and her late husband, John, were there from the beginning.
“It was the week that Kim’s opened,” she remembered. “My husband loved her because she was so kind, and the other Kim (Nguyen) did our tailoring work. Fifteen years ago we moved to Palm Springs, but every time we returned to the coast we came to Kim’s Restaurant first. She taught me how to eat Vietnamese food.”
Kim Nguyen’s clientele runs the gamut from vegans and meat eaters to surfers, devotees of the Self Realization Fellowship, city hall employees and celebrities.
One of the most popular dishes, Ravi Shankar’s Favorite, was named after the late sitar maestro, also a long time Encinitas resident that inspired the Beatles. The dish is made using spicy lemon grass with bell peppers, bamboo and a choice of shrimp, chicken or pork, or vegetarian.
“I didn’t know who he was at first,” Doan recalled. “Then he gave me a ticket for a concert he was giving in Escondido.” Shankar’s daughter, singer Norah Jones, also patronizes the restaurant.
The restaurant specializes in pho and specialty rice paper dishes including hand wraps, noodle soup, seafood, and barbecue and vegan selections. Popular dishes include shrimp wrapped around sugar cane, shrimp salad, beef salad and Kim’s personal favorites beef and grape leaves, and spicy shrimp.
Kim’s Restaurant is located at 745 S. Coast Hwy.101, Encinitas. For more information, visit kimsvietnamese.com or call (760) 942-4816.