“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.