The roof leaked all the way to the basement when Nam Doan purchased the property on Reily Street in Harrisburg.
“It was a wreck,” Doan, 38, said.
But he knew what he was getting into. He’d been investing in Harrisburg real estate for the past eight years—especially rental properties—and renovating them.
For awhile, he’d been searching for a restaurant location that would showcase his wife’s culinary skills.
“I saw this building as an opportunity within a coming-up neighborhood, near HACC [Midtown], new apartment buildings and the new [federal] courthouse,” he said.
It also felt like perfect timing for his growing family—his 4-year-old daughter soon will start school.
The property housed a soul food restaurant about five years ago, but the kitchen’s range was the only thing that Doan found salvageable. Everything else had to be completely renovated and rebuilt.
After six months of intense work, he transformed the century-old property into Midtown’s newest restaurant, the Red Boat. It’s the seventh restaurant in a Vietnamese/Asian fusion franchise launched by a friend of Doan’s primarily in the Baltimore/D.C. area. Doan himself is Vietnamese—and his real name is actually Nam.
He describes the menu as “fast and casual” with updated Vietnamese classics such as pho and banh mi (traditional Vietnamese soup and sandwich, respectively).
The restaurant’s signature dish, “The Boat,” allows diners to choose a base (rice, salad or noodles), and add a protein (beef, pork, chicken, fried tofu, shrimp or Korean bulgogi beef), topped with a sauce (fish, sesame soy, Teriyaki or house sauce).
“We’re tweaking the main concept of the menu a little bit for Harrisburg, adding a few unique twists like hot dogs with an Asian twist,” Doan said.
The “Saigon Dog,” for example, is a beef frank dressed with pickled daikon and carrot, marinated beef (or another option such as fried egg), cilantro and stir-fried onion. Kimchi and bulgogi beef are added to the “K-Town Dog” and topped with toasted seaweed.
The fusion of the classic all-American hot dog with Asian flavors is symbolic of the restaurant’s name. “The Red Boat” pays homage to the phrase “boat people,” describing the exodus of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.
“Next time, I want to try the tacos—I’ve never had that before,” said Jeremie Vu, 39, a Harrisburg resident who lives a few blocks away.
Soft tacos are another unique Asian fusion option.
Vu, who is half-Vietnamese, said that he gravitates towards restaurants that celebrate his culture. He tried the pho and “Café du Monde” (Vietnamese iced coffee). So how does the Red Boat compare to others?
“It’s very good, right up there with all the best,” said Vu. “It has the traditional standbys but with some fun new elements, too.”
The Red Boat sits next door to the longtime Garden Vietnamese Restaurant, but Doan doesn’t see them as “competition,” since their menus approach Vietnamese cuisine differently.
Doan’s wife, Dung Le, was a cook in Vietnam. A trained pastry chef, she previously worked at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Mississippi, where Doan was born and raised.
It was a job with Direct TV that brought Doan to the Harrisburg area eight years ago, and he decided it was a good place to put down roots.
“I love Harrisburg,” he said. “It’s beautiful with the river, and it feels like a big small city.”
Nice and Light
Now, it’s all hands on deck—Doan’s restaurant is bringing additional family members to the area.
“We’re very close,” said cousin Khoa Nguyen.
He greeted diners and took their orders behind the counter. The 27-year-old moved here from Mississippi in November to work at the restaurant.
During opening weekend, he said the three most popular dishes were pho, “The Boat” (“because it’s a healthy bowl”) and “the dogs.”
“Harrisburg feels like a small town where everybody knows each other,” Nguyen said. “Word is getting around fast [about the Red Boat],” said Nguyen.
The seasonings were just right to Dan Furci of Hummelstown. He enjoyed an opening weekend meal with his wife and found his “boat” with lemongrass chicken “perfectly seasoned.” He sampled his wife’s chicken pho as well.
“It was nice and light, with more of a Thai basil flavor,” he said.
The couple said they’d be back—they already have their next dishes picked out.
Seasonings and flavor are extremely important to Doan.
“I want people to know we don’t use MSG,” he said. “Some restaurants use it. It’s a cheaper way to add flavor without having to use more ingredients to make food flavorful.”
Capitol neighborhood resident Rick May stopped in during opening weekend, as well.
“The bubble tea was a unique experience—delicious,” he said.
As for his chicken pho, May declared it “the best pho in town.”
He and his wife have lived in Harrisburg for more than a dozen years.
“We like to support local businesses, and we’ve seen a lot of positive changes during the time we’ve lived here,” May said.
A rising tide does indeed lift all boats.
“I’m very excited about becoming a small business owner,” Doan said. “It’s very exciting. It’s lots of work, but we are getting lots of great feedback. So, we’re very happy with the outcome.”
The Red Boat is located at 306 Reily St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit their Facebook page or www.theredboatfusion.com.