This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Sunday lunch at Lao Lane Xang a few months ago was full of surprises: the range of the Vietnamese and Laotian dishes on the menu; the fact that our first courses were served in far less time than it had taken us to find a parking space in the crowded streets nearby; the size of the Asian supermarkets we had passed en route to the restaurant, many with stacks of the strongly smelling durian fruit outside; the street vendors selling home-made desserts; and the fact that everyone other than us seemed to be carrying shopping bags bulging with food.
This was not Asia, but Paris's Chinatown, a vast area in the 13th arrondissement that is bordered by two long avenues, d'Ivry and de Choisy (there is another, smaller, Chinatown in the 11th just north of Belleville metro, where there are two particularly authentic Vietnamese restaurants, Dong Huong and Tin Tin).
I was intrigued and not least by the fact that we had eaten so well, so copiously and so cheaply, currently vital for anyone not earning euros. I arranged, therefore, to return to the 13th, to a Chinatown that is, perhaps surprisingly, considerably bigger than London's or New York's, with someone whose own restaurant career has mirrored the growth of this area.
Robert Vifian arrived in Paris with his grandmother in 1968 after the fall of Saigon to the communists to join his parents, who immediately decided that with four mouths to feed and a son to educate they ought to open a restaurant. Tan Dinh was the result, a restaurant which, under Robert's guidance for the past 30 years, has combined Vietnamese food with the most stunning French wine list, although his father, a dapper 86, is still very much in evidence every night.
As we emerged from one of Chinatown's many underground car parks, Vifian explained that in the early 1970s there was no Chinatown in this area and that to eat the good Chinese food that he and his family craved they had often gone over to London. But pointing across to two buildings on the avenue de Choisy, one of which is now a McDonald's, he said, 'That was where Chinatown emerged. That was where the first store was selling Asian food and there was a Vietnamese restaurant next door. It was the mid 1970's.' History and urban architecture were the keys to its subsequent development.
At that time a series of tower blocks had been built to accommodate the city's growing population, with provision for shops and cafés at ground level and huge underground car parks for the tenants and the delivery vehicles. At that time, however, the French were not too keen to move in.
This coincided, however, not just with an influx of boat people from Vietnam but also with a subsequent wave of refugees during the 1970s from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. They moved in to what was then an inexpensive area and found the physical infrastructure in place for their wholesale businesses, supermarkets, cafés and restaurants.
We began by visiting the two biggest Asian supermarkets, Tang Frères, which is run by Cambodians, and Paris Store, close to which stood Vietnamese women selling home-made desserts from small tables that Vifian reminisced 'are so typical of chez nous'.
Then we walked across the walkways between the towers that had originally housed the initial and most authentic Vietnamese restaurants. But changes have taken place.
Several restaurants have now become cafés, Vifian explained, to accommodate the demand from students at the Denis Diderot University just to the north. But, he added, restaurants in this area tend to change their name and management quite frequently once the tax authorities turn their attention to them after their initial two years' trading.
When we walked straight past New Hoa Khoan and Tricotin, two restaurants on the avenue de Choisy which Vifian spoke highly of and were full of Chinese businessmen at large round tables, I thought that he had forgotten about my offer of lunch. But then he said that he was going to take advantage of my presence to do what he invariably does in Asia, but rarely has time for in Paris, and eat two different courses in two different restaurants.
We began with a bowl of pho, the dish of Vietnam, at a small restaurant that takes its simple name from this dish but which Vifian's father rates highly.
Pho is typical of the area with its tables close together, tanks of small fish along the walls and a couple of smiling Chinese waitresses behind the bar. From the menu, we realised that we were in the right place.
They bowls of pho were vast, teeming with a beef stock that Vifian thought was just slightly too fatty, but also full of slices of cooked and raw beef, noodles and small meatballs with plates of herbs and sliced onions soaked in vinegar on the side. Between mouthfuls, Vifian explained how although the Vietnamese were conservative in their cooking, different chefs had won a distinct following for their version of pho by subtle adjustments of the spices. As I paid the bill of 25 euros for two with a couple of beers, he awarded the dish 16 out of 20.
We then walked round the corner, past a couple of restaurants where the welcome was not as good as the food in Vifian's experience, to Dong Tam, where Vifian was greeted warmly by the owner. While their card announces that their specialities are Chinese and Vietnamese, Vifian wanted me to taste their crêpe vietnamienne. What arrived was a crescent-shaped crêpe made from corn and rice flour, sometimes with egg and saffron added for colour, stuffed with bean sprouts, prawns and sliced pork. There were lettuce leaves on the side for wrapping the other salad ingredients in and the traditional fish sauce accentuated by sugar, lemon and vinegar for dipping. My bill was the same as at Pho.
As we left the car park, Vifian passed on one other bit of advice. Taped to the barrier was a sign for a wedding that was going to take place in one of the restaurants. 'Always avoid those restaurants when they are hosting a wedding', he explained. 'They are so hectic they can't look after their other customers.' With that useful proviso, I would heartily recommend Paris's Chinatown.
Tan Dinh, 60 rue de Verneuil, 7th, tel: 0145440484
Pho, 13 rue Philibert Lucot, tel: 0145859736 (closed Wed)
Dong Tam, 12 bis rue Caillaux, tel: 0145848718 (closed Wed)
Nearest metros: Maison Blanche or Porte de Choisy.