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Sang and HaIn 1975, Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, was in the midst of a revolution. On April 30, North Vietnamese troops besieged the south to unite the countries under Communist rule as American troops evacuated. During the height of the political and social upheaval, 16 years old Ha Nguyen (pronounced Win), sponsored by her uncle, immigrated to Indianapolis from Saigon seeking safer, more prosperous life. It would be nearly 20 years before she reunited with her little brother, Sang, and began planning what would become her Pendleton Pike eatery, Sandra Rice and Noddles.

After years overseas, with very limited communication, Ha planned a trip to visit the family she’d left as a teenager. “When I went away from Saigon, my brother was 5,” she says. “I didn’t see him again until he was 23“. The reunion wasn’t as sweet as she had hoped. “I hadn’t seen or spoken to them in years,” she recalls, “and I wanted it to be a surprise, so I didn’t tell anyone I was coming. I got in and no one was at the house! I sat down and cried.” Her family did come home, and after their brief reunion in Saigon, Ha returned to the States and began the necessary paperwork to sponsor her relatives’ citizenship status in Indiana. According to Vietnamese law, as the oldest son, Sang was allowed to accompany his parents after only 18 months of processing, when in some cases sponsorship can take up to 10 years to complete. On February 22, 1994, Ha’s brother, mother and father took the 22-hour flight to join her in the Midwest, leaving behind twin sisters in Saigon, who still live there today.

The Hospitality industry was a quick fit for the Nguyen siblings. Ha worked as a server for the Omni Severin Hotel and the Hawthorns Golf and Country Club in Fishers, as well as a supervisor at the Hilton Indianapolis North Sang climbed the ranks at establishments including the Horizon Convention Center in Muncie, the Radisson Hotel City Center Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown and the Holiday Inn Columbus. He went from bartender to operations manager to food and beverage director in a mere 10 years.

It was in 2004, while he held a position as food and beverage director for the Holiday Inn, that a tiny seed began to grow. “The chef there was no good,” he says, “my boss said you do it“. After developing the menu for the bustling hotel, Sang began to cultivate a concept for a restaurant of his own, and his sister, a domestic chef in her own right, was on board.

The road to the Nguyens’ flagship eatery was challenging at best. A modest space available for rent in a strip of new retail stores o Pendleton Pike held promise. It was just five minutes from the home the brother and sister share with Ha’s two children. While Sang worked at the hotel during the day, he dabbled with the menu at night, drawing from influences in the hotel industry, books and his mother’s home cooking. Initial negotiations for the Pendleton Pike space didn’t materialize, and Sang took his concept elsewhere, eventually weighing the idea of a Vietnamese restaurant on a high-traffic run of 96th Street. Again, monetary constrictions resulted in a red flag. A second attempt at the Pendleton Pike location proved far more reasonable, and Sang signed for a space to house his American dream. The pair had 90 days to turn a vacant room into a modern Vietnamese bistro.

“We were starting from scratch, and there’s a lot you don’t know until you’re in the situation,” Sang recalls. Structural requirements and regulations ran against a tight deadline for opening day. A last-minute contractor, who Sang swears he would still recommend in a heartbeat, hammered out the final details just before the Nguyens’ first lunch service.

Sandra Rice and Noodles, named by Uncle Sang for his darling niece Sandra, Ha’s only daughter, opened its doors on April 2, 2007, with just one problem. “The man with our outdoor sign came the morning we were to open,” Sang recalls as the two now share a laugh. “He had all his equipment outside and no one could get in or out.”

The tiny obstacle made the first customer’s dollar bill just that much sweeter to Ha and Sang. D├ęcor came courtesy of the pair’s own home. “Money was little,” she says, “so we just took everything and brought it here. It’s all from Vietnam and we think it looks really nice.”

The Vietnamese cuisine, slightly modified for originality and American appeal, was a hit with area business owners and employees. “We’ve had so many nice people come in here and take menus to pass around,” Sang says.

“We get customers all the time that say, ‘the eye doctor at Wal-Mart told me I have to try this place.’ It’s so great,” Ha adds. Menu items such as seafood-rich soups, lemongrass-marinated pork chops and black pepper pork served in the traditional Vietnamese clay pot are an homage to the family-style dining of the Nguyens’ homeland, with their own additions such as shrimp spring rolls and beef lettuce wraps.

The siblings work full time at the restaurant, both cooking and serving. “Luckily, we have some help,” Ha says. Relatives and family friends pitch in when time allows, but one set of hands sticks out beyond the rest. A hotel acquaintance lovingly nicknames Mama B is a staple in the Sandra kitchen. Beatrice Williams is a mother, grandmother and an employee at both the Hilton Indianapolis North and the Indianapolis Marriott East. Williams also makes time to pick up the slack and help prep meat and vegetables daily for her busy for her busy friends on Pendleton Pike. “I don’t know what we would do without her,” Sang says. After the passing of the Nguyens’ mother, Hien, on Christmas Eve 2004, the special relationship is a welcome support.

The lessons of the Nguyens’ inaugural business year have only invigorated their drive to to be successful. The Vietnamese brother and sister who reunited more than a decade ago are hoping to grow, but not too much. Consistency, quality and reliability are essential to the family’s cooking philosophy at Sandra Rice and Noodles.

Source: Indianapolis Dine, Issue No. 6/2007