At first glance, it might seem odd that Kingfisher Cocktail Bar & Eatery, a restaurant that opened in January in Golden Hill, marries the culinary styles of two quite diverse countries, partnering ingredients favored by chefs from France and those from Vietnam.
At Kingfisher, beef tartare, wild mushroom congee, poached shrimp and Vietnamese sunchoke curry all share spots on the menu – a menu featuring entrees that fuse French and Asian flavors always with a California twist, and a menu that will change seasonally.
But the relationship between Vietnam and France is not a new one. It goes back to the 17th century when Catholic missionaries first arrived in the Vietnam. In the late 1880s, Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia were controlled by France. For centuries, France oversaw defense and foreign policy in Vietnam. It wasn’t until 1954 that the French retreated from Vietnam.
“We were under French ruling for 100 years and that gave us a lot of our culture – there was a lot of French influence,” said Kim Phan, 39, who co-founded Kingfisher with her sister, Ky Phan, 34.
“We always wanted to open a restaurant like Kingfisher, with a modern take on Vietnamese food, a Vietnamese French restaurant through a California lens,” Ky Phan added.
Kim Phan’s husband Quan Le and Ky Phan’s husband, Michael Ly are also part owners of Kingfisher. The four family members also run three popular Crab Hut dining establishments in San Diego.
For Kim Phan, Kingfisher allows her to pay homage to the family’s background and her childhood growing up in Vietnam.
She was only 11 and Ky 5 when her parents immigrated to the United States in 1994. Their mother was a seamstress and teacher, their father a lieutenant general in the military. The family initially moved in with family members in Houston but eventually made their way to San Diego.
“When I was younger, I would write out menus of what I would like to serve at my restaurant,” said Kim Phan. “I’m a home cook and very proud of my heritage. I love Vietnamese food and when we first came here, I missed the food, especially the herbs we used. I missed a lot of the vegetables and fish that I knew. So I wanted to introduce those foods that I ate when I was younger to our guests in San Diego.”
She said Kingfisher focuses on the traditional food she ate with her family when she was young, while also highlighting produce from San Diego County farms and fish caught locally.
“We cook what is familiar to us,” she said. “A lot of Vietnamese restaurants serve Pho and Banh Mi and egg rolls, but we serve more of a variety, more poultry and duck. And in Vietnam we ate raw fish and raw beef. A lot of those dishes have been lost in translation.”
Hot and Sour Catfish Soup
Kim Phan said some of the menu items at Kingfisher take her back to her Vietnam childhood, noting that the herbs and spices and flavors in one dish made with scallops reminds her of a hot and sour catfish soup she enjoyed when she was young.
Kingfisher was originally supposed to be a stylized cocktail bar headed by David Tye – the restaurant’s general manager and beverage director – and very different from the offerings at Crab Hut, which is a more casual seafood dining spot.
But when the Phans hired Jonathan Bautista to be Kingfisher’s executive chef, food became a central focus. Bautista has a strong culinary background with an expertise in French cooking, including stints as chef at George’s at the Cove and L’Auberge Del Mar. Once he came on board, the bar and food connection all came together, the sisters say.
“We feel like this is more of a complete project than what we first planned,” Kim Phan said. “It is something that’s still new to us as a fine dining experience. Our experience is fast casual dining. But with Kingfisher, we want to provide a comfortable atmosphere for everyone to come in. We are not pretentious at all. When guests come in, it’s all about helping them have a good time, with food and drinks. When we look around and see smiles on people’s faces having conversations, it makes us so happy.”
The Phan sisters are both graduates of Hoover High. Ky Phan went to San Diego State University. Kim Phan went to the University of California, San Diego and graduated with a degree in hospitality from San Diego State. They now live about 10 minutes away from each other in Carmel Valley.
Kingfisher and Crab Hut are not the first food ventures for the Phan family. Kim and Ky’s father opened and operated a restaurant in El Cajon called Panda Rice in the late 1990s, but the family sold it in 2009.
The first Crab Hut opened on Convoy Street in 2007, with the Phans’ parents offering their home equity as collateral for the loan.
Ky Phan said that initially, their parents were concerned when they learned that their daughters were going to go into the restaurant business.
“They were like, ‘Are you insane?’ We put you through further education so you don’t have to work like we do,’” Ky Phan said. “But we told them, ‘We have a vision and that we think we can do it.’ We were young at the time but they believed in us. They had absolute faith in what we were doing and signed the lease of equity in their house so we could be financially secure and open our first Crab Hut restaurant.
“I believe they’re very happy with our decision right now. We were able to get both our parents to retire. My dad still goes back and forth from the restaurants to make sure we are doing OK.”
Kingfisher, originally scheduled to open in 2020 but delayed two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was financed through Crab Hut.
“COVID put a really big hit on us but we were able to pull through, thankfully,” Ky Phan said. “As a business we’ve been able to keep a lot of our salaries for staff. We have about 25 employees at Kingfisher and over 100 at the moment at Crab Hut.
“We’ve never looked for investors,” Ky Phan said. “Our outside funding for restaurant expansion was from bank loans.”
Ky Phan said while they are “not making a lot of money for ourselves,” they are devoted to their employees and work “in a very family style.”
She said that “each restaurant is like our baby” and that now that Kingfisher has been open for a few months and is doing well, the sisters can concentrate on making sure things stay on course at all four of their dining establishments.
“We are focused on doing the right things for our employees, like providing a good salary and health benefits,” Ky Phan said. “Those are things we are proud of. At this point, we are past our honeymoon period and making sure we have the longevity to stay on course.”
FOUNDERS: Kim Phan and Ky Phan
HEADQUARTERS: 2469 Broadway, Golden Hill
CONTACT: (619) 432-1014
NOTABLE: Sisters run Golden Hill business.