The word “issei” is Japanese for a first-generation immigrant to North America. For the family that owns local restaurant Issei Noodle, that would be matriarch Naomi Pham. In 2000, the Okinawa native immigrated to Camp Hill with husband Robert and four kids in tow. But Naomi’s issei journey is just one piece of the Phams’ story that spans the Asian diaspora. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1975, a young Robert first came to Camp Hill as a Vietnamese refugee.
In 2008, the couple opened Issei Noodle in Carlisle. By 2013, their oldest son, Andre, and his now-wife Donna, expanded the family enterprise into Lancaster city, starting with a Queen Street walk-up window serving banh mi and bubble tea (followed by a full-service dining room in 2014). As the family celebrates eight years in Lancaster this month, which is also Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, they are also reflecting — on the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent spate of anti-Asian violence and racism and their vision for the future. That vision includes a third location in Camp Hill, set to open this summer, as well as some significant menu changes. Those changes, which were recently announced on social media and on the restaurant’s website, inspired the following conversation with co-owner Donna Pham, who communicated with LNP by email.
Note: This interview has been edited for space and clarification as needed.
The pandemic forced the restaurant to pivot exclusively to online ordering and takeout for both locations. How did this impact business?
Let me start off by saying this: Aside from one or two staff members who came and went during the pandemic, we rocked the entire year-plus of delivery and takeout with the same team of six people. They worked extremely hard day in and day out, under unfathomable circumstances. They are the rock stars of 2020.
Right before COVID-impacted dining room closures hit, we were ramping up for our highest grossing weekend of the entire year: Zenkaikon, a popular gaming and comic book convention. We had 15 employees scheduled to work Zenkaikon weekend, which was also the first weekend of dining room closures. We had stocked about four times the normal amount of product, had it prepared and ready for service. Then per the governor’s orders, we had to immediately pump the breaks, close our doors and switch gears into COVID mode.
We held a brief meeting with our staff, and after careful consideration and discussion as a team, we were able to determine which employees were willing to voluntarily go on furlough, freeing up hours for employees that needed the work. In just one weekend, we had to cut our staff from 15 to six. Then we reopened for takeout service.
In an attempt to protect our staff, I turned off the phone lines once online ordering was set up. They were starting to receive malicious prank phone calls in the middle of service with callers asking things like, “Is bat soup a popular menu item?” and “Did you bring the China virus here?” That was the final straw. I started to personally manage all of our customer correspondence through our social media pages and a registered Google Voice number.
For a while, we maintained the same volume of sales with only a fraction of our team. While they handled take-out and delivery orders, bottled to-go craft cocktails, packaged DIY ramen kits, they also battled a constant barrage of criticism from customers who didn’t believe that COVID-19 was real, who complained about our contactless ordering system or who just had some nasty comment for the staff of an Asian restaurant. I give our staff all the credit in the world. They adjusted wonderfully given everything they were dealing with.
How has the pandemic affected you and the extended family personally?
A few days prior to March 15, 2020, my mom had flown overseas to visit family in the Philippines. She had not heard about any kind of travel restrictions prior to her departure, but shortly after she had landed, a travel restriction was announced. She had only planned to be gone for three weeks, but with travel restrictions in place, we didn’t know when she would be able to fly back home, if at all. Her age and her underlying health conditions threw me into panic mode. While trying to maintain restaurant operations and adjust our staffing, I was also desperately trying to find a last-minute flight home for my mom. While I spent hours on the phone with airline customer support, my mom spent five hours in stand-still traffic, passing through multiple military check points and COVID screenings. When she finally boarded her flight home, she found out that hers would be the final flight to leave the Philippines before the country went into a total lockdown.
I had never held my breath for so long. I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until she landed back in the states some 36-plus hours later. That sounds like a tiny victory, but in hindsight, that was the biggest win of 2020 for me.
You recently announced on social media and on the Issei website of upcoming menu changes. The announcement refers to the family’s longtime practice of making menu accommodations for western palates.
Ramen is an art form. It requires careful consideration for the toppings and a very articulate preparation of the ingredients. It demands a painstakingly detailed process in which pork bones are simmered for hours and hours and strained and cleaned and watched very closely to create a nutrient-rich stock, one that is not too fatty and not overly salty.
But we are frequently asked with questions like:
“Is there MSG in your broth? I don’t eat instant ramen. What can I eat here that is MSG free?”
The fact is, we do not cook with MSG in our kitchen. Not one trace. We do, however, utilize various ingredients that are vehicles for the depth of flavor, something called umami. When customers request “no mushrooms” or “no fish sauce” or “no soy sauce” or “no sesame oil” or “no seaweed” or “no bamboo” or “no onions” or “no cilantro,” they are ultimately upsetting the very carefully constructed balance of flavors.
This does not mean that we do not accommodate allergies or severe dietary restrictions because we do. In 2018, we revamped our menu to make some dishes keto diet-friendly and expanded our vegetarian-friendly options.
One of our signature ingredients, spicy TanTan, is our noodle shop’s claim to fame. It is constantly requested as an “add on” to dishes that are prepared without it. But when customers request one of our best sellers prepared without the spicy TanTan, and then wonder why the dish doesn’t have the same flavor without it, what did they expect?
We created a meatless spicy TanTan with tofu so that our vegetarian customers would not feel left out. Imagine our frustration when a customer requests a vegetarian Haru Warm Ramen, but without the tofu TanTan.
I wonder why these types of requests seem perfectly normal in an Asian restaurant, but those same customers would probably never walk into a fine-dining French restaurant or farm-to-table Italian restaurant and start asking for ingredients to be omitted or served on the side purely “out of personal preference.” If the chef were to refuse the requested modification, does a flaming review follow? In those instances, I would gamble to say that it probably does not.
My question is: Why the double standard for Asian restaurants?
The announcement goes on to refer to the recent spate of anti-Asian hate crimes and violence that led to the decision to change the menu: “We quickly realized just how important it is that we hold on tight to our heritage and honor our family’s roots … through the food we prepare.”
Authentic, to me, means: the way it was intended.
I grew up avoiding Filpino food. I thought some ingredients had a weird texture or that they smelled funny. Filipino food didn’t resemble what was being served in the school cafeteria or what my friends’ moms would serve in their homes.
When I finally came to realize the cultural significance of funky ingredients in my family’s culture and understood their role in the overall execution of a dish, I became more open to appreciating a dish as it was intended. Why would I insult the chef and ask them to remove a part of themselves, to cover up something that I might see as displeasing?
I have seen and heard all types of comments from customers about their perception of our family’s food. I believe that most of the time, the resistance to trying new food comes from a lack of background knowledge of our cultures. For all the years that I worked as server in Issei’s dining room, I took on the educational aspect as my personal endeavor. I would describe the ingredients and why they are used and tell the story behind the dish. In every interaction, I would try my best to assess a customer’s personal palate and suggest dishes that I felt would appeal to an American palate. I was a personal shopper for my customers, so to speak.
But it started to get out of hand. Many customers got used to me accommodating their special requests and were not interested in trying any of the dishes as they were originally intended. They were only interested in one single dish and having it prepared just to their tastes, each and every time they came in, as if we were their personal chefs. Our restaurant was no longer our restaurant, but it was theirs. Our staff was at their beck and call, and if we missed their special request just once, the scathing reviews would surely follow.
What are the stories you want to tell through the menu?
It’s a story that I believe a lot of the AAPI community can relate to. Growing up as an Asian American kid in central Pennsylvania meant suppressing our heritage and our culture in order to fit in. We constantly asked ourselves the question: How could I possibly reconfigure and present myself to my peers in a package that is easily accepted?
For Andre and myself (and I am sure for many others second generation Asian-Americans), that meant asking our moms to pack us American-style lunches in order to avoid being teased or interrogated about the smells or the look of our moms’ home cooking. The Pham family legacy is a history built on the foundation of food. Built on the shoulders of mothers who only wanted to feed their children the flavors and smells that they themselves grew up with, with recipes that were taught to them by their grandmothers and great grandmothers.
Once we came to America, why were we suddenly so ashamed of that? Why was it more important to us that we have Lunchables and PB&J sandwiches? Was it so that we could play the part of a well-assimilated immigrant? Does it really matter if my lunch box is packed with fried rice versus a turkey and cheese sandwich?
That is just one very small example of the many ways we covered up bits and pieces of who we are, just for the sake of blending in. Despite all our efforts, we still stood out.
Originally, the menu was crafted with dishes of our homeland. But soon, that same idea of an “easily accepted package” carried over into how we started to run our restaurant. For years, we were so willing to change the recipes in order to be something that the American masses could accept and enjoy. We started letting our customers tell us what they wanted us to make, what they wanted to see on the menu, how they wanted it to be served, and in contrast, also what they didn’t want us to put into our food. We were quickly losing our footing in the “serving authentic Asian-fusion cuisine” realm because we wanted to please our customers more than we wanted to stay true to our cultures. We wanted to be accepted. We wanted to be liked.
But that is a slippery slope to stand on, one that can easily be misinterpreted as us “Americanizing” our menu or “watering down” our flavors. In light of current events, as a family, we have made the executive decision to stop this long-running trend of appeasing the masses. We know who we are, and we know where we came from. It is more important now more so than ever before that we share our story with our customers.
I’m a mother now. Our little girl is almost three years old. I know that one day very soon she will be in school, thinking to herself: how can I better blend in with my peers? While I know that she may someday choose to change her clothes or her hairstyle to fit in, the very last thing that I want her to do is to consider covering up who she is as a Japanese-Vietnamese-Filipino-American in order to appease her classmates, much like the way that Andre and I did when we were in school.
I want to teach her to be brave and be confident in her heritage. I want her to see her mom and dad, her aunties and uncles, running the family restaurant with that same bravery and confidence. If food is the beating heart of our “Phamily,” I want her to take pride in it, and to take pride in herself as an individual that is bound to stand out because of who she is. I hope that she grows up to not back down in the face of adversity, to not shrink herself to fit into a box, to not stay quiet and submissive the way that most would picture an Asian-American female to behave.
I want our customers to hear this same story. To hear how we are aiming to take back the pride in our culture that we were slowly losing grip of. I want them to know that while we live to serve, all that we are asking in return is that they take a seat at our humble tables with an open mind and an open heart. Once you enter our doors, you are family to us, and we just want to share our memories with you in the form of smells and tastes and textures.
What can Issei customers expect from new menu and when will those changes take effect?
We hope to reopen our Lancaster dining room for dine-in service in June. Our new menu and new policy changes will start to take full effect then. I plan to be present during reopening to personally welcome back all of our customers whom we have missed over this very long year, and to carefully explain our new policy and our intentions behind it. Andre and I are expecting very mixed feedback, but we will (as always) hope and pray for the best.
What has the response been to the announcement?
Aside from one interaction that I had recently with a customer, the response has been tremendously supportive.