The new owners of Van Loc are hoping to reinvigorate not only the long-standing banh mi restaurant but also the area where it has been in business for years.
"We just want Edmonton to recognize Chinatown as a destination," said Wilson Wong, who bought Van Loc with his best friend William Chen. "Chinatown is a diamond in the rough, but there is a lot of beauty."
Chen, 35, and Wong, 33, are the sons of parents who arrived in Edmonton in the 1980s as Chinese-Vietnamese refugees. They grew up eating banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich consisting of a baguette with savoury fillings such as meat, pickled carrots, and mayo. They spent a significant amount of time in Chinatown in their youth, and have seen the area's decline firsthand.
Wong's dad owned a restaurant in the now-levelled Mirama complex, which stood at Jasper Avenue and 94 Street. Chen's family ran a noodle shop in Chinatown (his sister is Winnie Chen, the head chef at Fu's Repair Shop). Chen also volunteered extensively for the Fukienese Association, one of the clan groups that provide a way for immigrants with similar cultural or language backgrounds to connect with one another.
Chen and Wong met at MacEwan University 15 years ago. While working their day jobs in pensions and sales, respectively, they experimented with several business ventures over the years, including selling T-shirts, BB gun pellets, and batteries.
"It's fun for us," laughed Wong. "Some people drink, we start businesses together."
The duo had hoped to open a coffee shop, but the pandemic halted their progress. They decided to see about acquiring an existing brand and learned the owners of Van Loc, who were also Chen's family friends, were looking to retire after 25 years in business.
"Our emotional ties to Chinatown and our conviction for the community and the math worked out," said Wong. "I wanted to take my sales experience and really push the narrative in Chinatown for a more youth-oriented way."
It also presented an opportunity to "show what we can do to revitalize Chinatown without getting involved in anyone's politics," Chen added.
The deal went through in October 2022, and before officially taking over in January 2023, Chen shadowed the original owners to learn their recipes. For the most part, they have maintained the same ingredients and suppliers, but have mechanized how they julienne carrots and tweaked some flavours.
"Our liver pâté is now made of chicken instead of pork," said Chen. "So it is smoother and less gritty. And our sate beef and sate chicken is more westernized — we put cheese and chili oil."
Chen is also excited to cook up non-traditional sandwich combinations. "I like to experiment," he said. "My creative outlet is cooking. I try random things on my banh mi. I've made a roast pork banh mi. I've tried a shaking beef banh mi using ribeye. And I'm experimenting with a papaya salad banh mi that one of my customers tried in California."
Chen and Wong have made some changes to how Van Loc runs. It offers customers the option to pay by credit card without an additional fee, one of the few quick-service restaurants in the area doing so. They invested in thicker rock glass so they can keep their street frontage more welcoming and their windows shutter-free. And they are hosting events to draw a younger crowd, such as a car show, paint nights, and Dungeons and Dragons sessions.
"Because we have young people coming, it's a much safer Chinatown," said Wong.
That said, it's been heartening to see return business from the older generation, too.
"The biggest compliment isn't the new people coming in after seeing us on Instagram, but the aunties and uncles coming back," said Wong.
The pair have big dreams about what Chinatown can become and hope one day Van Loc will be joined by Chinatown's first brewery and speakeasy, among other new businesses. But until then, they hope more people come and discover what the neighbourhood has to offer.