Ready to know more about San Diego?

Subscribe

Eat With Your Hands

Through war and a new life, the ritual of eating for the family behind The Crab Hut gave them a sense of home

“He was wearing two dog tags. The bullet went through the first dog tag, but the second deflected it down into his ankle. The bullet’s still in his ankle.” As Ky Phan shares on this week’s Happy Half Hour podcast, her father’s dog tag with the terrifying hole not only saved his life, but eventually became the ticket to a new life for his young family.

The Phans are from a small village in South Vietnam, near a river where they would pull crabs, snails, and shrimp. They’d boil them in pots, seasoned with what grew around them—like garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves—and eat them as a family with their hands. It’s how the kids loved to eat. They had to hide that from their father—aka “Papa”—because he wanted a certain decorum and manners for his family (mom took the kids’ side, playfully acted as lookout for when he was coming home from work).

During the Vietnam War, their father fought alongside the U.S. After he was shot, after that dog tag intervened, he was placed in reeducation camps (forced labor camps) by the Communist government. He remained a prisoner of war for five years.“

There was a humanitarian organization that helped anyone who’d been a prisoner of war for over five years move to the United States,” explains Ky in our office, seven months pregnant, using a blowtorch to melt cheese on oysters. “But there wasn’t any paperwork in war. How would you prove that you were a prisoner of war? So my dad showed them that dog tag.”

The Phans settled first with family in Houston. There, their aunt showed them the art of the southern seafood boil, a spicier version of the way they’d eaten in Vietnam. Their dad worked as a nail technician (on the podcast, Ky shares the fascinating story of how Vietnamese-Americans came to dominate the nail salon industry in California, and how it’s traced back to an actress who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds).

Eventually, they relocated to San Diego. Her father ran a small fast-food restaurant in City Heights, where Ky and her sister Kim learned the business. They kept their family’s seafood boil tradition alive with backyard cookouts—hundreds of pounds of seafood on picnic tables—until they finally decided to translate that experience into their first restaurant.

From day one, the line was around the block for Crab Hut. It’s a straight-forward concept—a plate filled with dungeness crab, king crab, lobster, shrimp, you name it, ladled in sauce. But it’s also a family tradition that followed them halfway across the globe, a family ritual.

Their story, this week on HHH. Come meet the family and taste what they make at the Del Mar Wine + Food Festival Grand Tasting on Sept. 9.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

Share this post

LATEST EPISODES

Podcast

Feeding San Diego Rescues 1.2M Pounds of Food a Month 

Listen now

Podcast

Making Wishes Come True With Chef William Eick

Listen now

Podcast

The Beach Boys’ Mike Love Puts Us in a Kokomo State of Min...

The Beach Boys’ Mike Love Puts Us in a Kokomo State of Mind

Listen now

Podcast

Lighting Up the Gaslamp 

Listen now

Podcast

The Story Behind San Diego's Hottest Backyard Restaurant

Listen now

Podcast

Is This the Best Falafel in San Diego?

Listen now

Podcast

San Diego’s Legendary Tony Tee Drops By the Pod

Listen now

Podcast

Feeling Lucky with Jason Mraz

Listen now

Podcast

The Spirits Company Giving Back, One Drink At a Time

Listen now

Podcast

Let Us Eat Cake

Listen now

Podcast

Getting Real With Celebrity Chef Lauren Lawless

Listen now

Podcast

New Episode: 40 Years of La Jolla's George's at the Cove

Listen now

Podcast

The Fishmonger Tommy Gomes Returns With Dry-Aged Fish

Listen now

Podcast

Paradise, Or Something Like It

Listen now

Podcast

The Big South Bay Brewery That Could

Listen now

Podcast

Top Chef Thanksgiving Day Tips: Lessons From Brad Wise

Listen now

Podcast

Chef Susan Feniger & Liz Lachman Premiere New Documentary

Listen now

Podcast

Is This the Best First Date Bar in San Diego?

Listen now

Podcast

Vegan, Doom-Metal Pizza

Listen now

Podcast

Hell of a Pedigree for a Little Fish Shop

Listen now

Podcast

Three-Star Michelin Chef Opens New Burger Joint in San Diego

Listen now

Podcast

The Next Big Thing: New School American Cheese

Listen now

Podcast

The Hit of Coronado

Listen now

Podcast

The Life of Failed Umpire Drew Deckman

Listen now

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA