After 23 years in business, Thao Le has sold Dalat, the beloved Vietnamese restaurant in Raleigh’s Mission Valley Shopping Center, across from N.C. State University.
The last chance to dine at Dalat with Le at the helm was Friday. Earlier in the day, Le signed the deal with the new owners, who own restaurants in Smithfield and Greenville. Le said Dalat, which may be the Triangle’s oldest Vietnamese restaurant, will close for a few weeks for renovations and then hopefully reopen by mid-August. Le said she will help the new owners and teach them her recipes.
In the past few weeks, Le had been quietly telling her regular customers about the sale and word has spread via social media. Lee Morrison, 66, who lives a few miles away, came Friday night to place a to-go order. Upon seeing Le, Morrison gave her a hug and said, “You are closing! Years and years of fine food – it’s a sad day.”
Morrison said he heard the news from a neighbor who called to say: “Did you hear the news?” Morrison said he responded: “Hear what? I heard about Dallas.”
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Le said the outpouring from customers has been overwhelming. Two different customers cut short business trips to Florida and Georgia to come back to dine at Dalat one last time. “To me, it’s rewarding,” she said early Friday evening. “I’ve dedicated 23 years of my life. Sunshine or rain, I’m always here. I’ve had good support from customers. I appreciate it a lot.”
Le, 53, said Friday that she decided to sell Dalat for two reasons: her health and her family.
Cooking at Dalat is tough on the body; it requires lifting and flipping a heavy wok in a hot kitchen. Le has twice ruptured disks in her lower back, and now she has a degenerative disk. Her doctors want her to have surgery, but Le wants to get away from wok cooking and try physical therapy.
Then there is her family. Le has two daughters, ages 25 and 26, one of whom lives in Texas. She wants to spend more time with her daughters, as well as visit relatives in Vietnam.
Le escaped Vietnam in 1979. Her father had died, but her mother had enough money to pay fishermen to take Le and some of her siblings away on a boat. Le, then 14, left with her sister, brother-in-law and two brothers. Le said they were shot at by communist soldiers as they tried to get to the boat. As they raced along the beach, they dropped much of their belongings, including identification, money and a compass, but managed to swim to the boat.
Le said the boat’s engine failed, and they were adrift for a week in international waters. Le recalled hearing other passengers praying about their dire situation. She soon joined in. “I’m too young to die. Please spare my life,” she recalls praying.
The boat eventually made it to the Philippines, and Le and her family landed in Philadelphia in 1980. Le graduated from high school and later Temple University with two degrees. She became a U.S. citizen, worked as an auditor and eventually moved here with her husband, an IBM engineer.
Dalat was opened in 1991 by Le’s uncle, who named it for the Vietnamese village where he was from. Le and her then-husband, Chien Van Le, took over the restaurant in 1994, tweaking the menu to highlight the healthy Vietnamese food that she grew up with in South Vietnam. He ran the kitchen, and she ran the front of the house. Dalat soon became a popular spot for students, faculty and families.
In a 1996 review, Greg Cox, the News & Observer’s restaurant critic, wrote: “Like many small, family-run restaurants, the emphasis is on the food rather than on elaborate decor. ... It may not be chic but it’s cozy, and the cooking smells that greet you when you walk in are atmosphere enough.”
Le isn’t leaving the restaurant business entirely. Once she is done helping the new owners with the transition, she plans to open a more casual place called 42 Funland in Garner, at Exit 312 off Interstate 40. Le says she wants to create a casual restaurant with an arcade for children where parents can get delicious, healthy food. She’s planning to serve pizza (traditional and Vietnamese flavors), banh mi sandwiches and wraps. The majority of her staff will join her there.
She believes making pizzas and sandwiches will be easier on her back and leave her more time to spend with her family.
Greg Cox contributed to this report.