When Charlie Ta uprooted his life in the U.S. in 2011 to return to Vietnam after decades abroad, he never guessed he would wind up opening a Ho Chi Minh City’s popular burger joint.
Now, after launching Chuck’s Burger in a tiny five-table restaurant in District 1 a decade ago, his current location on Pham Viet Chanh Street in Binh Thanh District seats about 40 customers eager to taste a classic American diner-style burger.
"Classic American burgers"
Chuck’s Burgers has all the stylings of a classic American burger joint – from the red and white awning to the plastic red fry baskets to the white subway tile that lines the walls.
As with any classic American burger joint, the massive flattop next the entrance way, consistently manned by Charlie Ta and his chefs, is where most of the eatery’s pork, beef, and chicken burgers are grilled up and topped with anything from a simple slice of cheese to a heaping portion of mushrooms, bacon, and ranch.
|Charlie Ta is seen making burgers at Chuck's Burger in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News
The average burger at Chuck’s goes for VND110,000 to VND200,000 (US$1 = VND24,277).
However, no matter the cost, Charlie Ta stays committed to serving, what he calls, “quality American style food” a la classic American flavors with little-to-no localization except, of course, when diners make unique special requests.
“A [diner] once brought roasted duck meat, and another brought blue cheese. They both asked me to add them to their burgers,” Ta shared.
"Others have brought pineapples, so I grilled them to make them fragrant before putting it on their burgers.
“As long as it's possible, I do what I can to make customers happy. I want them to see that the money they spend is worth it."
And that business plan seems to have paid off. The restaurant currently boasts a solid 4.3 stars on Google with more than 1,100 reviews.
“When it comes to classic burgers and fries, Chuck's never disappoints! Tasty and flavorful, if you're craving for an authentic taste this place is for you. The atmosphere is simple and functional, nothing fancy or sophisticated,” one diner reviewed on Google.
“Real American style burgers! Best I found in Vietnam so far. I thought I was going to have to fly to Singapore for a Fatburger or the Philippines for a Shake Shack cheeseburger. Turns out I just needed to cross the river. Thanks Chuck! You saved me a ton of money on airfare!” wrote another.
|Burger is served at Chuck's Burger in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News
A happy life in Vietnam
Charlie Ta thinks of his mission in relatively pragmatic terms: “people are hungry, we serve delicious food to make people happy.”
Fulfilling that mission doesn’t always mean turning a quick profit in dong, it often means turning a profit in happiness through occasional initiatives like offering free hot dogs to students who visit his restaurant and showing the owner that they’ve gotten good grades in school.
“Making the kids happy makes me feel like their uncle,” Charlie Ta said.
It is these joyful experiences that have fueled Charlie Ta since he returned to Vietnam after moving to the U.S. at the age of two, growing up, earning two university degrees, and feeling disenfranchised working 14-to-16-hour days at his job there at one point.
|Charlie Ta serves burger and side dishes to a diner at Chuck's Burger in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News
For the first few months after his return to Vietnam, Charlie taught English, but quickly realized the profession just wasn’t for him.
Eventually, he began drawing on his experience consulting restaurants in the U.S. to develop a business plan for a burger shop in Ho Chi Minh City.
Launching with just a single employee, the first four years of Charlie Ta at Chuck’s Burgers were spent working 12-hour days seven days a week.
At first, his customers were mainly foreigners, some of whom have become regulars for nearly a decade.
Now, about half of his customers are Vietnamese diners who are new to the concept of an American-style burger.
Not only has Chuck’s Burgers allowed Charlie Ta, now 44, to find a passion in work, but it has also allowed him to start a family with his lovely wife and daughter.
The life in Vietnam has brought him the opportunities to find happiness, he said, in serving delicious food to customers, chatting with them every day, helping his employees learn new things, as well as sometimes helping those around him see opportunities for career growth.
"I'm not rich, but here I feel like I can help more people than in the U.S.,” Charlie said.
“Here I feel comfortable and happy, I don't need to go anywhere else. I really love my country.”
|Charlie Ta is making fries at Chuck's Burger in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News