By Joe Anuta
Google one of Flushing’s newest restaurateurs, and this longing post from February appears in the results: “Chef Laura Lam — anyone know where she is these days?”
In the 1990s and 2000s, Lam accrued a dedicated fan base as the darling of Vietnamese cuisine in Manhattan. Her critically acclaimed eatery Monsoon — whose reviews in the Daily News and New York Times were so flattering they could have been written in saliva — was packed to the brim on weekends.
But Lam, a Vietnamese native who moved to New York in the late ’70s after fleeing her country, decided to retire and closed up shop last year.
But she could not stay away for long.
Her daughter convinced her to open Lan Kwai Fong, a self-proclaimed Asian café, at 135-23 40th Road in downtown Flushing.
“Maybe all my old customers will come looking,” she said with a laugh.
Lam graduated from a prestigious culinary school in Vietnam and even taught cooking classes there. But after the Vietnam War, she was forced to give up her life and flee the country with her husband and young daughter.
They eventually ended up in New York, where Lam was turned down for job after job in Chinatown kitchens.
But after she took another cooking course and got a big break as the assistant chef in Manhattan’s tony Rainbow Room, she started impressing curious pallets with a menu of her own in a tiny place called, fittingly, Laura’s Kitchen.
Lam made her name with Vietnamese food, sometimes with a French influence, but Lan Kwai Fong is much more than a two-country combo.
Lam often spends her free time traveling around the world learning new cooking techniques and urges her chefs to eat out in order to get new ideas.
And that hunger for knowledge is reflected in the menu.
You will find dishes inspired by Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Macao, like the fried pork cutlet sandwich.
To accommodate some of her herbivorous friends, Lam cooked up a string bean salad with the veggie version of bacon: thinly sliced fresh mushrooms roasted until slightly crispy and extremely savory.
Of course, there is plenty of Vietnamese food as well with traditional meals like Pho, a fortifying and slightly spicy beef noodle soup, or spring rolls.
Since her restaurant is just starting out, she offers a tasting menu to sample some of her creations and will be expanding the offerings in the near future.
The results will probably please the pallets of Lam’s future fans, but according to the recently unretired chef, there is no secret to making delicious dishes.
“You need fresh, good ingredients,” she said, adding that a chef cannot take shortcuts.
But behind it all is the belief that food brings people together and is a force for good in the world.
“Good food should be shared, and can bring happiness to everybody,” she said.
Lan Kwai Fong is open for lunch and dinner.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.