Behind his restaurant, Hanh Bach has filled his garden with exotic plants, many of which are used in his cooking. Lotus flowers in a pool of water. The lotus in his garden inspired the name of his restaurant, says Bach, the owner of Lotus Vietnamese Restaurant on Summer Avenue. “I wanted a different name. And I like the flowers, they are pretty.
While walking among her plants one recent afternoon, Bach picks sprigs of lemongrass, which she uses in her chicken, shrimp and tofu dishes. “I grow mint, basil, chilli, lemongrass and some Vietnamese flowers,” she says.
The garden also includes Asian fruit trees, including Thai lindens, which she moves to a greenhouse during the winter. “They don’t like the cold here.”
At this time, Lotus is only open for takeout. “We need to do some renovations in the restaurant,” explains his son, Han Bach. “That is going to take time.”
But customers can still get their favorite items, including the popular banh xeo, which Han describes as a “crispy pancake” filled with bean sprouts, seasoned ground pork and shrimp.
His mother learned to cook from her mother in Vietnam, says Han, the only one of her five children to be born in that country. The others – Solomon, Victor, Bernard and Kimberly Bach – were born in Memphis, where Hanh and her husband, Joe, moved in 1975.
“My parents were immigrants, so our sponsor first placed us in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas,” says Han. “I was sick and they had to take me to either Little Rock or Memphis. They chose Memphis because their sponsoring organization, All Saints Episcopal Church, was located here.
This city turned out to be a good choice. “When we arrived, everyone in the church loved us,” Hanh says. “And we loved them. We stayed.”
Hanh never stopped cooking after leaving Vietnam. “When I came to the United States, I was cooking for the family, for my friends,” she says. “I like to cook. Whenever I have a day off, I try to cook for my family. Do some of this, some of that. And baking too. When I got here, I tried to earn money by making wedding cakes for my friends and everyone.
She also got a job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Things changed for the family when the Bachs invited their godparents to their son’s birthday parties, where Hanh served Vietnamese dishes. “When they ate my mom’s food, they said it was great. ‘Hey, you should open a restaurant,’ Han said.
Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend are two other famous people who visited the restaurant in its early days. But Hanh said, “I don’t know who they are, honey. They arrived late at night and I was back in the kitchen cooking dinner.
Dr. Lester Hofman and his wife, Sterling, who were among the friends they made after moving to Memphis, were the driving force in getting his mother to open a restaurant, he says.
Hanh and Joe liked the Summer Avenue location which eventually became Lotus. “We lived through the summer,” says Hanh. “We drove by and saw the place was for rent.”
People knew “Chinese-American cuisine” better than Vietnamese cuisine when her mother opened Lotus in 1981, Han says. “We had to slowly introduce it to people.”
Vietnamese cuisine uses “a lot of herbs and spices”, some of which were hard to find in Memphis at that time. “It was very difficult to get a lot of our products. So, we had to do with what we could. For example, we couldn’t get Thai basil.
Chinese parsley and cilantro were the closest things they could find locally.
His mother also cooked Chinese-American dishes, but, he says, “we did it with our own flavors.” His “Vietnamese vermicelli” was one of them. “It’s shrimp. And we put roast pork in it. With bean sprouts, green onion. It’s a curry noodle dish.
People started ordering some of the Vietnamese dishes, including pho — “Vietnam’s traditional beef noodle soup,” Han says. “More people were ordering Chinese American food, but once in a while they would order Chinese American food because they knew it better, but maybe ordering a dish to try the Vietnamese type.”
The restaurant quickly became a success, albeit on a small scale. “Our restaurant has always been a well-kept secret,” adds Han. Customers hear about Lotus “by word of mouth. We never advertise.
The restaurant was open for lunch, but Hanh said, “I don’t see business that way.
She stopped serving lunch and only went to dinner. “So for a long time I had nothing to do and cooked and served on tables in a Chinese restaurant [Hunan Palace] on Mount Moriah. I worked there in the morning. And take the kids to school and bring them home.
Then she was back in the kitchen cooking dinner for the growing number of diners, including actress Cybill Shepherd, Han said. Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend are two other famous people who visited the restaurant in its early days. But Hanh said, “I don’t know who they are, honey. They arrived late at night and I was back in the kitchen cooking dinner.
“We’re so close to the highway that people would stop just to grab a bite to eat,” Han says. Her father, Joe, was at his usual stand in front of the house to greet and seat customers that evening. “I was so green back then in this country,” Joe says, not really noticing the two rock stars. “I’m not paying attention because we have a full room”, but he still remembers that they ate two vegetarian dishes.
When she’s not cooking at the Lotus, Hanh is gardening behind the restaurant or working at her other job in banquet services at the Peabody. “I like to work,” she says. “I work all the time.”
“They don’t know what rest is,” Han says, referring to his parents. “They don’t know what a vacation is. I have to fight them to go on vacation. If we leave for more than three days, they get nervous. They can’t sit still. They cannot rest. The last time we closed the restaurant was July 4th. I sent them on vacation. We went to visit a family in Texas near the gulf.
It was a short vacation. “We only left for three days. They cannot last more than three days.
Han is proud of his parents and the legacy they created at Vietnamese restaurant Lotus. “My dad is still the face of the restaurant,” he says, “but my mom is the heart of it because she’s the cook.”
Lotus Vietnamese Restaurant is located at 4970 Summer Avenue.