Little Miss Ha, a Vietnamese Restaurant in South Carolina, Was Inspired By a Beloved Family Recipe
Janice Nguyen Hudgins grew up making egg rolls with her mother, Thu-Ha Nguyen, but you won't find those on the menu at Little Miss Ha, her Vietnamese eatery in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. "We do imperial rolls at the restaurant," Hudgins says. "We use rice paper, the way they do it in Vietnam."
For as long as Hudgins can remember, her mom, who emigrated from Vietnam to Charleston in 1979, has made egg rolls using wheat-flour wrappers. And until two years ago, Hudgins just assumed that was the most authentic version of the dish. "I was selling egg rolls out of the trunk of my car, and I had this awesome couple who would order, like, four dozen at a time," she says. "They had lived in Vietnam for nine years, and one day, they said, 'We love your egg rolls, but do you have the extra-crispy ones like they make in Vietnam?' " Bewildered, Hudgins asked her mother what they meant, and it was then that she learned the traditional Vietnamese egg rolls she had grown up making weren't exactly that. "Mom said, 'Oh yeah, they make them with rice paper there. That's the original way.' I said, 'What? We're not making them the original way?' I was totally duped."
Her mother's preference for the wheat-based wrappers was born of practicality, says Hudgins. "Rice paper is really, really sticky and fickle. When my mom and aunts moved to the States, they came across the wheat ones. Everybody was using those instead. It's a lot easier, and you can freeze them, so those are what we grew up on."
While the wheat-flour shells of Hudgins' childhood may not be part of the imperial rolls at Little Miss Ha, she still credits her mom's recipe as the one that started it all.
When Nguyen immigrated to Charleston, she didn't speak much English, but she could count money and landed herself a job at the since shuttered Piggly Wiggly on Meeting Street. "People couldn't really pronounce Thu-Ha (two-HA), so they were like, 'We'll just call you Miss Ha,' " says Hudgins. It stuck. After a stint as a cashier at the cigarette counter, "Miss Ha" moved to the deli, where she eventually started selling her egg rolls and fried rice on the hot bar, right alongside the fried chicken and okra stew. Well versed in making the recipe for a crowd, Nguyen also began selling them to a local caterer, who would buy a few hundred every other week. Filling the orders became a family affair. "Mom would make the mix; [my younger brother] Ryan would have to peel all the egg roll shells—he was only 5 or 6, so that was his job; and Mom and I would roll," says Hudgins.
Now, years later, Ryan is the head chef at Little Miss Ha and Hudgins is teaching her oldest daughter, Ellie, to help out too. "Once you roll a couple thousand, you'll get it!" Hudgins says.