Son's Döner Kebab, in College Plaza near Wendy's and Zaxby's, has a complex backstory, but simple and appealing fast food not exactly like anything else in Statesboro.
Born in Vietnam, Son Nguyen immigrated to Germany at the time of its reunification and spent 20 years there, where he learned how to prepare döner kebab.
What is döner kebab? It's a fast food popular throughout Germany, but whose origins are in Turkey and with Germany's Turkish immigrants. The umlaut over the "o" means döner is pronounced as "dooner" with a hint of "derner." It's not shish kebab. Instead, think of a Greek gyro. In fact, "döner" from Turkish and "gyros" from Greek both mean turning or revolving.
A skewer is involved, but it's a big, vertical rotisserie. At Son's, there are two of these, each holding a cylinder of meat, a sort of huge sausage for carving. One is the beef and lamb blend of the classic red-meat döner or gyro. The other is chicken.
The meat turns in front of an electric broiler as Nguyen or a trained employee slices it off the roasted outer layer with a sharp knife or an electric slicer with a rotary blade. The shaved meat of your choice then goes onto the plate or bread of your choice.
If you choose a Number 3 with the works, you get what is by all accounts the classic German version. The meat goes onto a split, largish chunk of crusty white bread. The vegetable toppings give the döner its German accent: white cabbage and red cabbage, each as a slaw in long shreds; lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onion. The yogurt sauce, in your choice of herb or garlic, maintains the Mediterranean flavor.
Why is this such a popular fast food in Germany, and why does Nguyen think it should catch on here?
"Cheap, easy and delicious. That's why," he said in English.
For the interview, his son, Nam Pham, and an employee, Carson Downs, translated more complicated questions and answers. Pham, who was born in Germany but grew up speaking Vietnamese in the family, used that language and fluent English. Meanwhile, Downs, whose two European study trips gave him five months of immersion in German, speaks it with his employer as their preferred common language.
With decorative signs in German, Vietnamese sometimes spoken behind the counter and, of course, most customers ordering in English, a visit to Son's can be entertainingly trilingual.
Some know their döner
The place draws Georgia Southern University students and faculty who have studied abroad, as well as people from military families and others who have spent time in Europe, Downs observed. Friday, when photos were being taken for this story, first-time customer Julia Harris, who grew up in Germany but now lives at Fort Stewart, shared the rhyming slogan, "Döner macht schöner," or "(Eating) döner makes (you) prettier."
The Internet reveals that this is the theme of a lot of silly T-shirts and at least one song.
After learning that Statesboro has a döner place, Harris had driven an hour to try it. After eating one döner, she proclaimed it authentic and good and ordered three more to take home.
Besides the standard Number 3, there's a version on pita bread, identical to a gyro except for the toppings.
Other variations include a wrap in a thinner flatbread, a döner kebab box with fries or rice, larger plates of each of these, and a vegetarian plate.
In addition to canned sodas and bottled water, Son's also offers boba tea slushies. These fruit-flavored drinks, with tapioca pearls in the bottom to slurp through an oversize straw, were a Taiwanese invention.
Twice an immigrant
Nguyen, now 44, emigrated from Vietnam to Germany when he was about 19. East Germany had a program of exchange with Vietnam as a fellow Communist nation. But he actually arrived in December 1989, one month after the opening of the Berlin Wall and one year before the formal reunification of Germany.
After working for an auto parts manufacturer for years, Nguyen invested in a food truck in 1996 or 1997. From the truck, he sold Vietnamese fast food - such as fried noodles with chicken and vegetables - as well as döner kebab.
After about two years, he went from the food truck to establishing a restaurant and eventually operated two in Germany, in the cities of Frankfurt am Main and Chemnitz, for a dozen years. Again, he served both Vietnamese food and döner.
"It's pretty common to find, like, Asian food with döner kebabs in Germany," said Pham.
"Even some grocery stores, you walk into the store and they've got Vietnamese and kebab right there," Downs observed.
With other family members already living in the United States, Nguyen immigrated again in 2010, settling first in Warner Robins. His sister operated a Vietnamese restaurant there, and he set up a döner kebab place inside it.
But Nguyen, his wife, Hoa "Helen" Pham, and their son and daughter all live here now. So he opened the place in Statesboro in September. It's smaller than his previous restaurants and strictly a döner kebab shop.
Daughter Tu Pham, 22, is a student at Georgia Southern, where she is studying to be a teacher, but she helps with things such as paperwork for the business, her brother said. Nam Pham, 18, a Statesboro High School student, works a full day at the shop each Saturday. Their mother has a job elsewhere, but helps chop the vegetables each morning.
Obviously, Nguyen hopes his little restaurant will catch on with other customers than just those with prior exposure to döner.
"Vietnamese cuisine is not uncommon in the USA, but kebab for some reason has never taken hold here, and it has got complete potential, because it's all over Europe," Downs interpreted, explaining the choice.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.