She and her family arrived in Canada in 1980 as “boat people;” refugees of the Vietnamese war. Her mother, Kim Lai quickly got into the restaurant business. Lai is a quarter Chinese, and since China has heavily influenced cuisines all over east and southeast Asia, it was easy for her to learn to cook Chinese food.
Over the decades, Lai and her husband Lam Nguyen owned and operated a variety of food businesses in Atikokan and Thunder Bay, such as the Office, Kim Bee and the Boda. Eventually, the family bought a pre-existing restaurant, Chinese Express in 1997, and three years later, moved it to its current location on Arthur Street.
Xuan and her four siblings all studied and worked in their chosen fields, but three of them have gravitated back to the family business. Xuan works full time as the manager, and her two younger sisters have other careers, but still work part time at Chinese Express. “You can never leave family,” Xuan laughs. “You always come back to it!”
The menu at Chinese Express is wide and eclectic, Xuan says. By far, the most popular item is her mother’s special spring rolls, served with her “secret fish sauce,” Nuoc Cham.
She feels grateful that many loyal customers have followed them from restaurant to restaurant over the decades. “I just had a customer who said, ‘I remember you were at Kim Bee, and we went to the Boda too.’ It’s a blessing that people follow us,” Xuan says. Although Chinese Express is currently take-out only, she knows the regulars will come back for dine-in when they reopen in the future.
In recent years, Chinese Express has gained a following in remote communities as well. The restaurant flies food up to Sachigo Lake, Sandy Lake, Webequie, Fort Hope and other northern communities.
“We’re friends with all the northern airlines,” she explains. “It opened a lot of doors for us. First it was school graduations.” As their reputation spread in the north, community members and organizations began ordering for community gatherings, family events and business meetings.
Xuan thinks Chinese food is popular throughout Canada because it’s a comfort food. “I also find that people like to order Chinese for special occasions,” she says. “Especially during the holidays, that’s a major thing for us. People don’t want to eat turkey every day.”
“Our Chinese food is very Canadianized,” she explains. It’s easy for everyone to find something they like on their menu, she adds. “We cater to celiacs, and vegetarian dishes are common now. We try our best to do a bit of everything. Even chicken fingers and fries for the kids!”
“Everything we make at the restaurant is homemade,” Xuan asserts. Her mother is still frequently in the kitchen, even though there are enough employees to do the work. “She works less but she’ll never let go,” Xuan says.