In the 1960s, when American soldiers were over in the jungles of Vietnam, the only McDonald’s restaurant in the Springfield area was on Brandon Avenue next to the Tower Building. Fast forward 43 years, and that location is home to Saigon City Restaurant, specializing in "Shaky Beef," a delicacy of the Nguyen family.
"It's cubes of beef and onions, like a Vietnamese steak meal," said Tuanh Nguyen, a graduate of Hayfield Secondary School and George Mason University, who helps out on the weekends.
Tuanh Nguyen spoke no English when she came to this country at 13. She is now a data analyst in Herndon. She has a friend in California who likes the Shaky Beef.
"He comes once in a while, and he wants that," Tuanh Nguyen said.
From the outside, the restaurant still resembles a McDonald’s, but the restaurant offers no golden arches or happy meals. Inside, a picture of the Cho Ben Thanh market, which Tuan Nguyen got when he went back to Vietnam on a cultural fact-finding mission, adorns the wall. He had never been to that country.
"It was supposed to be one of the famous supermarkets in Saigon," Tuan Nguyen said. "Before we opened, I went back to Vietnam. It's in the middle of Saigon."
Tuan graduates from Herndon High School this year. He is aware that Saigon was renamed "Ho Chi Minh City" when the North Vietnamese Army took over in April 1975, but not everyone honors that.
"We go with the original name," Tuan Nguyen said.
The Nguyen family lived in southern Springfield for years, moved to Herndon and opened Nguyen Deli, and then came back to Springfield to open the Saigon City Restaurant. Tuanh Nguyen still lives in Herndon. She works at the restaurant on the weekends.
THE 40 YEARS of McDonald’s occupation did take their toll on the building, though. Cleaning, repainting and renovating took longer than anticipated.
"We planned to only take three months, but it took six," said Nguyen.
Opening day was Friday, May 14. Lunch time was not quite as hectic as McDonald’s, but busy just the same. Nguyen thinks the Vietnamese population in Springfield, as well a lot of other Asian clientele in the area, will embrace the cuisine. One other Vietnamese restaurant is located in southern Springfield.
The location of Saigon City is close to the highway and hotels that are part of the revitalization effort by the Central Springfield Revitalization Committee (CSPARC). It is a "gateway" location, according to Springfield Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy-jo Manney.
It's too early to tell if the Nguyens will join the Chamber, though.
"We want them to thrive so they can stay in business. That corner is a gateway property," Manney said.
Tuanh Nguyen was aware of the revitalization efforts in Springfield. Changing the outside of the restaurant is the next step, she said.
"We would like it to look up-to-date, as well," Tuanh Nguyen said.
While most of the businesses in the Springfield Chamber of Commerce are owned by longtime Springfield residents, the Chamber is reaching out to the different ethnic groups. The Chamber includes Thai, Korean and Hispanic organizations among its membership.
"We've put together a cultural diversity panel to try to approach another aspect of our community," Manney said.
Bob Stockton owns the barber shop in Tower Center. Stockton is an original business owner in Springfield. He's aware of the Vietnamese cuisine.
"Soups is what I like the best. They can make it hot if you like it hot," he said.
Betty Hill is another longtime resident who's lived in Springfield since the 1960s and kept her eye on the developments at Saigon City. Hill was in for the soup on opening day.
"I enjoy their soups. It's nice to be able to have a selection," Hill said.