With its bright blue facade and playful mural featuring a baby teetering on a red plastic stool, Bé Ù fits right in with the burgeoning new businesses on the edge of Silver Lake and East Hollywood. The restaurant, which opened in February in the former Gail’s Rolls N’ Grill space, is the latest to set up shop in an area that has undergone tremendous change in the last decade and is the ongoing subject of dialogue about gentrification in Los Angeles. But look beneath its cheerful surface to find something extraordinary on Hoover Street.
“I’m trying to address the forces of gentrification,” says Uyên Lê, the restaurant’s owner and executive chef. “Or at least be conscious of it. It’s this idea of having real food at affordable prices where the people that are working feel safe and are healthy.” With a decade-long career spanning community building, urban planning, and workers rights before stepping foot into a professional kitchen, Lê is uniquely equipped to run a restaurant that serves not only its customers well, but its workers and neighborhood too.
As the hospitality industry returns to a new kind of normal following a year of pandemic pivots, Bé Ù also serves as a model for how restaurants can operate more equitably. “I’ve always been passionate about social justice, economic justice, and environmental sustainability,” says Lê, who built coalitions around green initiatives like solar energy for an electricians union just before embarking on her culinary career. “It’s a triple bottom line that you can’t really do one without another.”
Lê immigrated from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1991 when she was 7 years old. She spent her childhood in West Covina surrounded by food and the vibrant community that it brought together. “We had really big family parties where I would help prep, like, 200 quail eggs, make the pickles, pick all the herbs,” she says. “It’d be, like, three or four tables just full of food, kids running around, and then the men sitting there drinking their Hennessey and sodas. And it really reminded me of Vietnam.”
But adapting to life in America had its challenges, including a language barrier and too much pressure to assimilate. Lê also found it tough at times to balance her identities and ideals with her family’s values and expectations. “The politics of the Vietnamese, America, and mine weren’t necessarily aligned at the time,” says Lê. “It was kind of a strange experience being a queer kid.” Food, though, always served as a bridge and a balm during these rougher moments.
Lê began working in social and economic justice during her final semester at UC Berkeley, when she traveled to the Gulf Coast to help Vietnamese communities rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She assisted with direct relief efforts, like handing out supplies and removing mold from homes, and lent a hand with long-term community planning by establishing organizations like Asian Americans for Change and Coastal Women for Change. Lê’s work in the Gulf Coast led to a masters degree and then a career with the UCLA Labor Center, where she worked with undocumented workers and undocumented students on workers’ rights, fair wages, and respectful treatment in the workplace. Her final post before transitioning into the hospitality industry was with an electricians union, where she focused on gaining support around green jobs.
Putting in 60-hour work weeks for more than a decade took its toll and inevitably led Lê to burn out, though she never lost her passion for justice issues. “Even though I care about this work, I’m just not feeling like I’m the person to do this,” she says. “I was just tired of also seeing how restaurant workers, especially cooks and dishwashers, aren’t getting proper pay, they’re being abused, they are not getting proper time off if they get sick.” So she quit her job with the electricians union in 2016 and carved out a new career that not only centered her values, but also encompassed her lifelong love of Vietnamese food. “Instead of telling other people what they should be doing with their businesses, I wanted to test out some of these ideals I had,” says Lê. “I didn’t want to just do it on a policy level. I wanted to do it on a really practical, hands-on level.”
Before jumping into opening a restaurant, Lê enrolled in formal culinary and pastry programs and learned the ropes at Button Mash and then Cassia. “I was intentional about who I worked for and why,” she says. Lê was drawn to Button Mash in Echo Park for its high-volume clientele and fun, accessible, and shareable food. She also admired owner Jordan Weiss and culinary duo Nguyen and Thi Tran’s delightfully different approach to food and dining at the arcade-slash-restaurant. She gravitated to Cassia in Santa Monica because it was higher-end and operated in a different location. Plus, she’d heard that chef Bryant Ng and his business partner and wife, Kim Luu-Ng, prioritized sustainability for workers and she wanted to experience it in action. In both restaurants Lê worked in the back of the house to get a real sense of kitchen culture and rhythms.
While Lê didn’t plan on striking out on her own so soon, the pandemic sped up her timeline in unpredictable ways. Placed on mandatory leave twice from Cassia due to the breakneck policies regulating restaurant operations, Lê relied on the occasional catering gig and her personal savings to get by. When a promising space opened on Hoover Street, Lê was ready to pounce using earnings from a prior real estate investment. “The neighborhood is amazing [with] a lot of people walking; [it’s] super dense. It was one of those things where it just called to me.”
In naming the restaurant Bé Ù, which means “chubby baby” in Vietnamese, Lê is reclaiming a distressing childhood nickname. “I had a lot of anxiety about food being called chubby all the time,” she says. “I was a normal-size American kid but a chubby Vietnamese [kid], and my family would tell me I was chubby every day thinking it would somehow help make me skinny. But it just made me hate myself and have a messed up relationship with food.” Over the years, Lê gained a clearer understanding of her family’s intentions that helped to ease her battle with food. “I realized as I’ve gotten older [that] showing concern is like basically saying, ‘I love you,’” she says.
Bé Ù’s embrace of Vietnamese diacritical marks is wholly intentional and serves as another nod to Lê’s immigrant upbringing. “Growing up, my name was completely butchered, still is all the time, and I want folks to struggle with something different than to just feel comfortable, quite honestly,” Lê says.
Inside this unsuspecting incubator for progressive ideals, Bé Ù serves Vietnamese comfort and street foods at affordable prices. “This is a rent-controlled neighborhood and there are folks who lived here for decades who aren’t able to pay $12 or $13 a sandwich,” says Lê. “It’s important to me that I keep items affordable to everyone here.”
The priciest dish on the menu — the caramelized pork and eggs with pickled mustard greens served over steamed white rice — clocks in at $10.50. Lê considers this dish, which she learned from her mother, the heart of the restaurant. Hours of slow and low braising makes for tender pork morsels while the egg retains its bounce. Lê says that her mother would be especially pleased that the pale yellow yolks lack the grayish ring of overcooked eggs. Though this dish is a staple on every Vietnamese dinner table, it’s rarely found on restaurant menus because it can be time consuming and expensive to prepare. “It’s a dish I’m very protective of, and it’s not a dish that’s easy to make in large quantities and to keep it at that quality,” Lê says. Also from her mother’s kitchen are the pork riblets — delicately battered and fried bone-in nuggets served over rice.
Lê is particularly proud of the banh mi made on crisp-golden baguettes sourced from Pacific French Bakery. While the sandwiches, stuffed with lemongrass-scented chicken, pork, and beef, have been popular from the jump, the vegan one filled with tofu and vegan pate is Lê’s favorite. Drawing inspiration from Vietnam’s rich tradition of Buddhist cuisine, Lê aimed to construct a meatless banh mi that didn’t compromise on flavor. The pate took months to develop: Its final formula includes mushrooms, garlic, tomato paste, sunflower seeds, and cashews. Rounding out the menu are shareable dishes, including bo la lot (grilled beef-stuffed wild betel leaves), popcorn chicken with a garlicky aioli, summer rolls, and a mango and mint slaw. To drink is pressed pennywort juice, sparkling limeade, and iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
In addition to serving food priced for neighborhood locals who need access to affordable meals, Lê is committed to making change within a historically exploitative industry by paying workers well, prioritizing their health and safety, and fostering a respectful and equitable culture. She’s also making room for workers’ professional growth by learning about each employee’s goals and seeing how she can help them to achieve it.
“Her entire life has been trying to bring justice where there isn’t any. Her whole thing is to speak for the people who don’t have a voice, and it resounds at Bé Ù,” says Adrian Samayoa, the restaurant’s kitchen manager, who worked closely with Lê while both were employed at Cassia.
After earning a cook’s paycheck for nearly two years, Lê knows firsthand how difficult it can be to make ends meet, so she is providing a higher than market rate wage for Bé Ù’s half-dozen employees. “I was working close to 40 hours a week, and for two weeks [of work], after taxes and everything I’d get like 900 bucks, and that was challenging for me,” says Lê. “If I had somebody else to support, or a kid, that is just completely not a living wage.”
Every worker starts at $18 per hour, and tips are pooled and divided equally among front- and back-of-house at Bé Ù. “The Uyên ethos is that a good hard day’s work should provide you with enough money to live off of,” says Samayoa. “I’ve seen servers walk away with crazy amounts at the end of the night and the cooks all drive away near destitute after working eight, nine, 10 hours, just trying to scrape together working two cooking jobs, one in the morning, one at night.”
“It’s nice to work for someone who’s been at the bottom floor and done various positions and knows the life that we all live and the challenges that come out of cooking professionally and for a living,” says Vincent Musci, one of the restaurant’s line cooks. “There has been very adequate compensation. It feels good to be valued in that way.”
The health and safety of her workers is a priority to Lê, which means providing paid sick leave and sending injured workers home. When Samayoa showed up for his shift limping due to recurring tendonitis in his heel and Achilles tendon, Lê insisted that he stop working and seek medical attention. “It’s happened to me on the line before, I’m just limping around and everyone’s like, ‘Yep, he’s doing the work. Cool.’ And when Uyên noticed it, she was so immediately concerned,” says Samayoa. “The genuine concern for my well-being on her part was touching and moving. This is a different restaurant.”
“When it comes to kitchen culture, you will hear everyone say it a million times and a million times more, ‘If your kitchen culture isn’t right, nothing will be,’” says Caroline Ramirez, another one of the restaurant’s line cooks. To that end, Lê is also rethinking the necessity of kitchen hierarchies rooted in the French brigade system. “A very top-down, military-style system is how kitchens are organized traditionally, and there’s something to having a chain of command in order to get things out, but on the other hand, that system can be abused,” says Lê. Every worker at Bé Ù has an equal voice and is encouraged to use it. “I’ve worked at some really awesome places with great chefs and amazing leadership, but none of them have really taken input from the employees as much as Uyên has,” says Samayoa. “She’s the owner, she’s the chef, she’s exec — the first and the last word — but she never flexes that. It’s just understood.”
“A lot of the times when you’re working in these kitchens that don’t have a great team or a support system, you cannot ask for help, like your ship is sinking and there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Ramirez. “But not over here. The second you need something, like, boom, it’s there, everyone is just happy to do it ... that is so hard to find, and it feels so good.”
With a month of operating under its belt, things aren’t perfect at Bé Ù, but they’re looking promising. “We’re still definitely operating in the red, but it’s been really well received,” says Lê. “I’m hoping to just do volume and to have the staff be more productive and efficient in order to get into the black with this type of model. I expect us to be in the black on a daily operations basis by May.” Lê projects that the restaurant’s startup costs, including equipment, design, and renovations, will be recouped after the first two years of business. However, the pandemic’s lingering uncertainties will likely impact her assumptions.
“It’s not like I wanted to come in and disrupt everything. I just wanted to create something here and try to make it happen,” says Lê. “If it can [be sustainable], then to share it more widely — to include it in the conversation about equity, access, career ladders, and justice.”