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You could say that Orson Swindle, the former Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, is a regular customer at Nam Viet in Clarendon. “At one time I think I calculated I may have had over a thousand dinners there,” says the two-time Purple Heart recipient who served with the U.S. Marines.
But that’s not the whole story. The Vietnamese restaurant has been in business for more than 30 years, and it is built, in part, on the friendship of two men—Swindle and late Nam Viet owner Nguyen Van Thoi. Both men were held captive in Vietnam.
Thoi served as an interpreter for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, but after Saigon fell the North Vietnamese captured him and he spent two years in a re-education camp. “He had suffered terrible hardships for his loyalty to the American armed forces in South Vietnam,” Swindle says. Meanwhile, Swindle’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. The North Vietnamese also captured him, and held him as a Prisoner of War in Hanoi until 1973.
The two didn’t meet overseas. They met in Arlington.
Thoi and his wife Ngoc Anh Tran immigrated to Arlington from Can Tho in southern Vietnam in 1979 with the help of Catholic Charities. “They worked odd jobs in the D.C. area,” says Richard Nguyen, Thoi and Tran’s son. He serves as the general manager of Nam Viet, and his mother is head chef. “Dad was a gas station attendant and a carpenter’s assistant on the weekend, and mom was a sous chef and babysitter.”
In 1983, the couple opened their first restaurant, My-An, on North Highland Street in Arlington. At the time, the neighborhood was Northern Virginia’s Little Saigon. “It had fabric stores, stores that sold luggage, jewelers—definitely not the Clarendon you see now,” Nguyen says. “You had an Asian market where the CVS is now and a few pockets of Asian stores.” The area Vietnamese community gradually relocated to Eden Center in Falls Church.
When Swindle moved to D.C. in 1985, he went looking for a Vietnamese restaurant where he could revitalize a dwindling tradition—“Tet” dinners. When POWs came home in 1973 many of them settled in the D.C. area to attend war colleges, and during the Vietnamese new year, known as Tet, they’d come together to break bún and talk. The tradition waned when POWs began leaving the District for new assignments.
Swindle came knocking after reading a positive review by former Washington Post critic Phyllis Richman. “As I walked in the door—keep in mind I’m about 6’2’’—a very small Vietnamese gentleman came up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’” Swindle inquired if the restaurant could accommodate twenty people for a POW dinner. “Yes,” Thoi said, even though My-An only sat 12 people. “From that brief meeting, he and I became lifelong friends,” Swindle says. “When we met it was a bond that I have seldom experienced with others.”
Their Tet dinner tradition continued when Thoi and Tran moved the business from Highland Street to Hudson Street in 1986, naming their much larger restaurant Nam Viet.
“The one thing that kicked off the family business is paying homage to the POWs,” Nguyen says. “It’s been humbling at times … as time progresses, it’s sad because some of them are dying off. The parties that used to be 80 or 90 people are down to 30 or 40.”
Swindle now lives in Colorado, but his picture is the first thing you see when you enter the newly renovated Nam Viet. “Orson is the greeter,” Nguyen says. His photo is next to one of Thoi with Senator John McCain. Relocating the framed photos of war heroes, most of them posing with Thoi, was a priority when Nguyen and his mom closed the restaurant for a month, reopening Aug. 31 with a modern aesthetic.
“It looked like your typical ’80s restaurant but in the 2000s,” Nguyen says. Now it has new tables, chairs, lighting, cabinets, tiles, bathrooms, fresh paint, and a terrarium display.
For the first time since 1997, there is only one Nam Viet. The Cleveland Park location, which Nguyen’s parents opened when he was 13, closed in June after twenty years on Connecticut Ave. NW. The family was staring down the decision to sign a fresh five-year lease. They opted to fold. “The customer never sees it,” Nguyen says. “They think the restaurant will be here forever.” The daily pull for lunch had gone from $800-$1,100 down to $300-$350, and from $2,300-$2,400 to $1,110-$1,200 for dinner.
“The people we named in our goodbye letter came a dozen times a month, but there’s only so much they can hold down,” Nguyen says. “It wasn’t anything we were doing service-wise, people just weren’t flocking to the area.” Trendy new dining neighborhoods made for stiff competition. Ripple closed next door, its owner citing similar rationale.
Despite closing one location, spirits are high at Nam Viet in Clarendon. Enter the eatery and hear regulars who have been coming since 1986 compliment Tran on the revamp. Diners affectionately call the 65-year-old woman “Mrs. Thoi.” “If I mention retiring, she says I’m an ungrateful son,” Nguyen jokes. “For an Asian woman, she’s still in her prime … I think retiring at 65 is a Western concept.”
While Nguyen keeps operations running smoothly, Mrs. Thoi is the lifeblood of the restaurant. “I’m just the assistant,” Nguyen says. “If this were a crime family, I’d be the consigliere. I’m the yes man.”
Say yes to Nam Viet’s signature dish: deep fried crispy spring rolls with pork, chicken, crab, carrots, onions, and vermicelli. “People travel far and wide to get the crispy rolls or the grilled pork dishes,” Nguyen says. “One person asked if I could put the spring rolls on dry ice so they could get them home to Oregon.” They’re impeccably fried.
While Mrs. Thoi introduces seasonal specials, the Nam Viet menu, to its credit, hasn’t evolved much. It spans fried pleasures, fresh salads dressed in house-made fish sauce, comforting pho, grilled meat and fish served with rice or noodles, appetizers, stir-fries, and other entrees.
“You’re not going to find an amuse bouche here,” Nguyen says. He lets the local dining scene change around him, his restaurant remaining a constant. “Clarendon has gone through nine or ten metamorphoses since I was in middle school,” he says.
This year alone, the neighborhood saw a rash of splashy openings including Spanish-themed sangria-pourer Pamplona and next door Bar Bao from the same owners. Wilson Hardware, a 7,000-square-foot restaurant, opened on Sept. 8. There’s still more to come, including The Lot beer garden and a 350-seat bar called G.O.A.T. The acronym stands for “Greatest Of All Time,” even though it hasn’t opened yet.
The millennials Nguyen sees frequenting these bars may not come to Nam Viet at night, but he sees them first thing in the morning for a hangover cure. “Bros who need a pick-me-up after a night at Don Tito’s are banging on our windows at 10:30,” he says. The restaurant opens at 11.
Nguyen has seen some of Clarendon’s older businesses cave to irresistible offers. “These developers come in here and throw you such a beaucoup amount of money, and I’m like, ‘When am I ever going to see that chance again?’ It’s like a lottery ticket. Should I cash that in?”
While Nam Viet hasn’t been approached yet, Nguyen expects it to happen. History makes him hard to tempt. “This area has welcomed my family. We went to school here, live here, my brother raises his kids here,” he says. “This is the only area my mom knows. That weighs more than any monetary incentive. We’ve lasted 31 years. I hope to exceed that.”
Mrs. Thoi visits every table for hugs and small talk during dinner service. “She’ll make you feel at home,” says Nguyen. “This is her kitchen, this is her living room.” It’s as if Mr. Thoi, who his son describes as “the jolly man in the short-sleeve dress shirt and suspenders,” passed the hospitality torch to his wife when he died in December 2005.
“My dad had lung cancer but wasn’t a smoker,” Nguyen says. He describes a scene where his father was receiving a system-ravaging chemotherapy treatment in the hospital while fumbling with his notepads and two Nokia phones. “I never asked him why he had two phones, but he was always talking to people and checking in while he was in treatment,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen overheard him coaxing a customer to come to the restaurant for soup because he was feeling sick. “Dad, you have cancer and you’re worried about someone’s cold!” Nguyen recalls saying. At the time, Thoi was still waking up at 7 a.m. to make fish sauce.
“Delivering his eulogy was one of the toughest things I have ever done,” Swindle says. “He was jovial, had a great sense of humor, he was smart, and we had many occasions to laugh and share stories.” While Swindle was the Assistant Secretary of Commerce, the pair even traveled to the Philippines to visit Thoi’s brother. “It was a heck of an experience, just the two of us.”
Swindle calls his grief the day of the funeral overwhelming. “He was one of the best friends I ever had, and to this day his family and I and my wife are very, very close. They are a wonderful American and Vietnamese family.”
Nam Viet, 1127 N Hudson St., Arlington; (703) 522-7110; namviet1.com