Thirty Years of Family Cuisine: Kim’s Vietnamese in Encinitas

By Pat Launer

It’s a family affair and a local tradition for more than three decades: Kim’s Vietnamese in Encinitas.

It all goes back to 1980, when Kim Nguyen and her older sister left their village about 45 minutes outside Saigon, and came to the United States. Ultimately, three members of the family re-settled here; four remain in Vietnam.

Kim, sixth in line of eight children, was 19 years old when she arrived in San Diego. While attending English school, she met John, her husband-to-be, who was a tailor. Kim began working for a tailor, too.

Meanwhile, Kim’s sister, Kim Doan, was working in various restaurants around San Diego.

In 1986, she was ready. She opened her own restaurant, Kim’s Vietnamese. It’s been in the family ever since.

Ten years ago, the youngest sister arrived, and mostly self-taught, she became the chef. Kim Nguyen worked nights at the restaurant, after she finished a full day at Kim’s Alterations, the tailor shop she runs with her husband, just two blocks away on South Coast Highway. Kim Doan runs the front of house. Kim Nguyen’s daughter, Sueanne, serves meals, and her brother is the manager.

Five years ago, Kim Nguyen assumed ownership of the restaurant, so her older sister could back off a bit, to part-time work. She continues to work days at Kim’s Alterations, which is renowned for its fine detail on formal wear, but also serves a wide general clientele. Two or three nights a week, you can find her at Kim’s Restaurant.

“When we started,” says Kim Nguyen, there was no Vietnamese restaurant in North County. The largest Vietnamese population was in Mira Mesa.”

There are still only a few local Vietnamese families that frequent the restaurant, but says Kim, “we’re doing fine. We have a lot of regulars, some coming for 30 years.”

What brings them back is the family feel, the warm welcome and the delicious traditional Vietnamese food. And the culinary flexibility: gluten-free and vegetarian options are available, and MSG is never used (Kim is allergic to it).

The restaurant is in the midst of a renovation, and will re-open on March 13, with a new color scheme (turquoise is dominant), new lighting, and a modern look and feel, with a low wall of live plants adding warmth and greenery.

You might think there would be conflict, with all those family members in one place. But this is not that kind of family.

“Everyone gets along really well,” says Kim. “We’re a loving family, very affectionate. Every Monday, everyone has dinner together.”

That includes the next generation, Sueanne’s baby, who spends a lot of time at the restaurant, too.

As the middle sister, Kim Ngyuen is the mediator.

“We’re really close sisters,” she says. “But I like to make sure everyone understands everything, and we all go along with all decisions. We all decide everything together.”

One of the first decisions that will accompany the renovation is a short-term discount: 10 percent off all food for the first week after the re-opening. Look for a new sign out front, too, and a newly re-designed menu.

A few new additions include chicken wings stir-fried with garlic, and steamed seabass with ginger, onion and basil.

Some of the most popular menu items are grape leaves, shrimp on a sugar cane, and shrimp with mushroom and bamboo shoots, with spicy lemongrass and bell pepper.

“That was Ravi Shankar’s favorite,” says Kim in reference to the world renowned musician, composer and sitar-player who lived not far away, until his death in 2012.

“He would order that every time,” Kim says. “His family still comes in and orders that same dish — sometimes with chicken or pork.”

Of course, one of the big draws at Kim’s is the pho (the luscious Vietnamese rice-noodle soup), which comes in many varieties here: seafood, chicken, beef, meatball, vegetarian, tofu, mock chicken and with three types of mushroom.

“We don’t buy our broth,” Kim says proudly. “We cook it here with our own special recipe and with lots of special vegetables. It’s fresh and healthy. If you’ve never tried pho, you have to try Kim’s!”

It’s made with love by a loving local family.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at