Pandemic remodeling the Vietnamese way

There is a relatively boring and staid suburb of Detroit, Michigan called Madison Heights. That’s where we’re starting this story. Madison Heights, Michigan. 48071, incorporated in 1955.

A tale as old as time…. well, as old as post-war American suburbs anyway. When parking lots and cars rule the world, this is what you get.

Madison Heights is like so many other post-war suburbs that sprouted up like mushrooms after World War II—a featureless grid of affordable single-family homes with aluminum siding, a driveway, and a garage for every car. Bordered by expressways that enabled folks to jet into Detroit for work and then run away quickly from the scary city back to their quiet suburbs—the perfect fertile ground to plant the seeds of the baby boom and launch a whole generation of people who had a lifetime sunny days and easy livin’ ahead of them (well, if they were white, of course). The perfect hive for the modern nuclear American family.

But something strange happened in the 1980s. Refugees from Vietnam settled in the area. Not a huge number, but enough to skew some demographic statistics in some interesting directions. 2% of Madison Heights’ population is Vietnamese, which is ten times the state average. What this means is that Madison Heights, for all its boring suburban strip-mall blandness, also happens to have some fascinating restaurants and businesses. It means we have a Little Vietnam to visit!

Little Vietnam

Unfortunately, there isn’t a central “Little Saigon” or “Little Vietnam” district like other towns would have. The Vietnamese businesses are scattered haphazardly all over various intersections, at whatever strip mall they could land in. There’s nothing walkable in Madison Heights so you’re basically getting in your car, driving to some oversized parking lot, and finding a spot in a strip mall that happens to have the restaurant you want to visit. But oh, what treasures can be found in these strip malls!

One of the restaurants that has been there the longest, in my recollection, is Thang Long. Thang Long is at the southern edge of town, not super close to the most concentrated area of Vietnamese restaurants. Thang Long has always billed itself as a “Thai/Vietnamese” restaurant because, and I’m just speculating here, but I think it’s because people were more familiar with Thai food than Vietnamese food when the restaurant got started. What I do know is that I’ve been eating at Thang Long for over 20 years, and it’s always been a favorite of mine.

I couldn’t find too many pictures of the pre-pandemic interior, so just ignore the goofballs in the photo. The food was excellent! But check out those mauve walls (2019).

The interior of Thang Long, for most of my life, was not inspiring. It mostly sported a dated pink and black motif, with cheap and uncomfortable furniture. It also had that “lived in” look of so many family-owned restaurants where… well, let’s face it—where the family that owns it spends all their time there and raises their kids there. I have many memories of children doing homework in the back two booths, a TV on with an older man watching (probably the grandfather), and very clear family dynamics between all the staff members. The bathroom was dingy but serviceable, and the vinyl booths had tears in them and the walls were ever-so-slightly sticky with years of wear and tear and food residue on them. It wasn’t terribly off-putting but it certainly wasn’t a fine dining experience. It didn’t matter—the food was spectacular, always.

I used to come here often with my son Kyle—it was one of his favorites. Again, note the old interior (photo from 2012).

Thang Long is one of those restaurants that I thought about and checked up on constantly during 2020 through the lockdown. I was worried that as a small family-owned business, they wouldn’t make it.

It was much to my joy, then, when I discovered that they had reopened. My return visit was quite a shock, though—and that’s putting it mildly.

Wow factor

The outside looks exactly the same, but the interior… The interior, oh my.

An amazing hand-painted wall filled with dozens of unique teacups.

The interior has become something akin to a temple. It’s like the mosaic temples I visited in the Mekong Delta—absolutely beautiful zaniness. Thematically consistent yet wildly and unabashedly chaotic.

It’s a temple. There’s no other way to describe it. A temple with booths and tables to eat at.

One thing I noticed is that some of the original staff (the original family) is still working there, so it’s possible that the new owner is in the family, but oh my did he take the downtime to redecorate the family business. Each booth has a large canvas oil painting against the wall, and they’re all unique. The booths are black and white tiles with gorgeous floral patterns, and each has a curtain.

I started taking photos and met the new owner. He introduced himself as Wesley. He spoke about the food and about the Mekong Delta region fondly so I have to assume he’s from the south of Vietnam. He proudly told me that he was the one responsible for the interior design and all the paintings. Unreal.

The food has remained excellent—if anything, even slightly better than before, which is saying a lot. The ginger tai beef salad (always one of my favorite dishes) is still incredible and the Hue soup is like (if this is even possible) an even-better version of Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup. The Som Tum (shredded papaya salad) was presented in an amazing serving dish and was fantastically spicy, funky, and sour. They even sent peanuts out on the side so they wouldn’t get soggy from sitting in the lime juice. And look at that adorable umbrella!

Som Tum—shredded papaya salad; spicy, bright, sour, and salty with just the right amount of fish-sauce funkiness.
Cá Kho Tộ – Braised catfish in a thick, salty, gingery, spicy sauce. Wesley proudly claimed that the Mekong Delta style was superior to the Hanoi style.
The absolutely perfect Hue soup.

Try as I might, I have a hard time ordering anything other than Cá Kho Tộ for my main dish. This is the only Vietnamese restaurant in the Detroit area that I have found that serves this amazing dish. They braise catfish in a thick metal bowl with a rich, hearty sauce. The sauce is sticky, salty, sweet, and complex. It actually reminds me of mole, the Mexican sauce that is fussy, complicated, and generates fierce pride from each family or region that has their own take on it.

The interior defies my meager attempts to photograph it without making prior arrangements, setting up lights, and doing an honest photo shoot, which is the only way to do this place justice. You absolutely have to go experience it for yourself.

Oh, and while you’re there, enjoy the incredible Vietnamese food.

Thang Long restaurant is located at 27641 John R. Road in Madison Heights, Michigan.

Chúc Ngon Miệng!

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