LocationAlhambra , CA
Rosemead’s Sáu Can Tho Vietnamese Kitchen, a mom-and-pop restaurant specializing in whole baked catfish, is one of the many restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley whose business model was based on family-style, in-person dining before the pandemic.
“It’s a fun, communal-type of food,” owner Michael Trang says. “Our kind of food is not the kind of food you eat to get full. Our food is the kind you eat when you’re happy, to enjoy, to celebrate… There’s not a lot of celebrating right now.”
Nine months since restaurants were ordered to close in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, businesses are still eagerly awaiting the day on which reopening their doors may happen.
Trang’s business took a big hit with the closing of indoor dining. The restaurant has a loyal base of customers but the decline in traffic and transition to exclusively takeout orders cut business in half.
Though Sáu Can Tho already has a system for catering or takeout orders, some of the food takes time to prepare and is not exactly a quick pick-up; the catfish, for example, takes at least 45 minutes to cook.
Trang points to other businesses around him that have gone under, saying it is not just his restaurant, but everyone is fighting to survive.
Trang is the second-generation owner of Sáu Can Tho. His family immigrated in 1984 from the Mekong River Delta, in southwestern Vietnam, and the Trang’s food is inspired by the region’s cuisine.
His parents, now retired, established the restaurant in the early 1990s on San Gabriel Boulevard and Garvey Avenue in Rosemead and another on Valley Boulevard and Del Mar Avenue in San Gabriel.
Trang did not want to end their legacy, so he reopened Sáu Can Tho on Garvey Avenue near Walnut Grove Avenue.
He said at first, the survival of the business did not look promising during the pandemic – if they closed, it would be the nail in the coffin of his parent’s brand. “Time heals all wounds, if you will. We stayed open, people called, and word spread that we were still here.”
The restaurant serves a variety of Vietnamese food; not just “commoner’s” food or popular dishes like pho, Trang says, but more exotic dishes too. Less commonly seen meats like alligator, wild boar and ostrich have graced the menu.
The big attraction, however, is the whole baked catfish.
“On a plate it looks majestic – compare it to a turkey dinner,” Trang says with a smile.
The fish vary greatly in size, a small catfish can feed two people and some of the larger fish can feed up to 10 people.
After the fish is prepared – the restaurant’s secret process – the meat is strategically cut near the spine and pinned back for baking. Trang said catfish are ideal for family-style, off-the-bone eating because they have large and orderly bones that are easily seen.
Once out of the oven, the stakes are removed from the fish and it is extravagantly garnished with peanuts, oranges and more. Included with the catfish is a do-it-yourself spring roll kit of fresh ingredients illustrative of Vietnamese food, like herbs, bean sprouts and thinly sliced vegetables, noodles, rice paper wrappers and a dipping sauce.
The restaurant’s menu is extensive, and the elder Trang is memorialized on the back. “Of course, it’s his legacy,” Trang laughed. But his father never really left the restaurant. Even in his retirement he can be found hanging out in the dining room.
As Sáu Can Tho continues to ride out the pandemic, Trang is optimistic.
“I believe in the food,” he said. “Everyone here is healthy and in high spirits.”
Sáu Can Tho Vietnamese Kitchen is at 8450 Garvey Ave. #103 in Rosemead.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed on Tuesdays
If ordering a catfish, call an hour ahead of pick-up at 626-307-8868.