A key player in the Field Corner Vietnamese eatery scene and the Boston Little Saigon district, Anh Hong Restaurant, closed its doors suddenly on Dec. 29, citing landlord issues that could not be overcome despite ongoing negotiations since September.
Victoria Nguyen and her husband, Dino, have operated Anh Hong on their own for the last six years during which time it became a key destination dining attraction for Vietnamese food – a Boston Magazine Best of Boston winner that routinely attracted people of all ages and all walks of life to the Adams Street location. The restaurant has operated there for more than 20 years, but Nguyen took it over from landlord Dustin Thai six years ago when he decided to retire. Since then, Victoria Nguyen said, she believed that they had a great relationship as her business flourished and he collected rent on time and in full.
However, now out of business due to what she called a technicality in her lease, she said her trust was misplaced. “I took his word because we’re all Vietnamese and I trusted him,” she said while cleaning out her restaurant last Thursday.
“We were cordial when we talked every month when I paid my rent. Suddenly, he gave me a termination notice for my lease. I didn’t even open the letter at first because I didn’t think it would be this. I finally opened it and couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and I called him. He wouldn’t say anything except to call his attorney…It’s a pretty big shock for me.”
Nguyen said she paid all of her rent on time, a contention Thai disputed in court, even as Covid-19 persisted and her business was down as much as 80 percent. She took out PPP loans to help cover the costs and worked up long hours during staff shortages. She still hasn’t gotten any answers from Thai, and, she said, he has renewed leases with other businesses in the building.
“I won awards every year. I worked really hard. Anh Hong was my baby, and I took good care of my baby,” she said. “I spent 120 hours a week in here during Covid. My husband and kids ask why I’m not home, but the younger baby needed help. I had to be there.” Now, that “baby” is only an empty shell, though it was vibrant and full of customers as recently two weeks ago.
For landlord Thai, the issue is simply about Nguyen not paying her rent, and that was the matter he took to Dorchester District Court. His attorney, Robert Russo, said that they filed a commercial eviction notice last September in that court, and that there was a bench trial on Dec. 16 in front of Judge Lisa Grant.
Russo said Nguyen was found to be delinquent on $84,000 in rent, and Thai agreed to forgive the rent if Nguyen vacated the restaurant by Dec. 30.
“If the community is upset, are they going to reimburse my client $84,000?” asked Russo. “This is business. She had a lease and an attorney at all times. It’s all on record…My client isn’t happy, either. He isn’t happy he lost all that money in rent. It’s a substantial sum of money. She could have applied for money under the CARES Act like a lot of businesses. She didn’t do that. I don’t know why. Had she done that, we might not be in this spot.”
Nguyen’s attorney, Jen Allen, said in this case “what’s legal is totally different than what’s fair and what’s right,” she said. “They don’t always unite. It’s not always what we think is right. He had every legal right to terminate the lease and, unfortunately, that’s what he did…The other attorney indicates it’s just business and that’s unfortunate. I expressed my disgust with his client, but it’s his job to represent his client to the best of his ability as it is my job to represent my client.”
Allen said her client notified Thai verbally by the deadline that she wanted to renew for five years, but didn’t do so in writing because she trusted Thai. That, Allen said, was the “technicality” that led to the end. She said that Nguyen paid rent faithfully up until four months ago when it became apparent that Thai was not going to renew the lease no matter what happened. With that, the commercial eviction was filed by Russo.
“We couldn’t come to an agreement, but the court resolution was an agreement for her to be out by Dec. 30, and she didn’t have to pay the back rent,” Allen said.
Fields Corner Civic Association President Hiep Chu, as well as Field Corner Main Streets Director Jackey West Devine, said the community is very upset by the sudden closing. They said Anh Hong was a key part of the Vietnamese culture in Fields Corner, along with the other restaurants that attracted people from inside and outside the neighborhood.
“It’s very unfortunate and I can’t begin to express what a big loss it is for the community,” said Chu, who is helping Nguyen find another location in Fields Corner. “Something else might come, but it won’t be the same. Other restaurants are a little too traditional Vietnamese or Asian or Chinese. Anh Hong was better with Vietnamese traditional food. That is the difference, things like the seven-course beef. The ownership was hands-on, and the restaurant really attracted young people – the young generation…That’s something you can’t get from other places.”
After closing the doors, Nguyen said that she will take several months as a break, particularly because operating a restaurant is very difficult right now. She said meat prices have skyrocketed and so have things like paper bags and Styrofoam containers.
“I had no time to work on my menu,” she said. “I try to keep my prices low to keep people happy. I tried to do what I could, but I couldn’t do it. The cost of meat is very, very expensive and you just can’t find enough meat to operate.”
Nguyen is left with a bit of a cold shock, but she said her heart was warmed by the customers who came last week to say farewell.
“When people found out I was closing my doors, everyone came out to support me and wish me well. It was so touching,” she said. “They came in and took pictures with me. I’m closing my doors and it’s sad, but I feel so warm inside from the support I got from my customers who came to say good-bye…I will be back in Dorchester, I believe.”
Nguyen said she owns the name of the business, and she hopes to be able to open again somewhere near Fields Corner later this year under the same name.