Cute name, seriously good vietnamese food.
by Alexander Quebec
Note: Interview edited for clarity and content
On a beautiful spring afternoon in downtown San Jose, I spoke with Viet Ngo, owner of Vietnoms Vietnamese Restaurant. Inside the SoFA marketplace, nestled among already established vendors like Milk & Wood and The Fountainhead Bar, I found the place still buzzing with guests from the tail end of the lunch rush.
I sat down with Ngo to talk about his place. There are a lot of Vietnamese restaurants all over San Jose, and I was curious as to what inspired Viet to create Vietnoms. The name, first of all, a play on the name Vietnam, which also happens to have Viet’s name in there combined with the “Nom” sound (like the classic cookie monster nom nom nom sound) with his first name. I knew there was more to the story, so I pressed on.
I went to school at UC Santa Barbara, while there I was always craving Viet food that I grew up with. My mom, when she first came to America, she worked in restaurants. She’s one of the best cooks that I know, and we ate delicious food at home every night. I would get cravings for Vietnamese food, but there was one Vietnamese restaurant and they were selling bowls for $12 dollars that were really bad.
After I came back from school, I realized we’re really spoiled in San Jose in terms of food selection, like Vietnamese food. How do you get authentic Vietnamese food out to the masses? And also like people my age, people who are into customization, stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily find at the best Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose. I started thinking about what ingredients crossover in these dishes. When people think of Vietnamese dishes, they think of banh mi and pho but there are other dishes like vermicelli bowls and rice plates that are really popular in the Vietnamese community that people who aren’t Vietnamese might have not tried before. There’s a lot of crossover between those things because thit nuong, lemongrass pork, they serve the same pork in the sandwiches and the vermicelli and rice bowls, pork and chicken are the main proteins and pork is the number one that they serve over there [In Vietnam].
Our conversation around the food itself revolved mainly around one person, his mother. It just so happened that the interview coincided with the Fall of Saigon to the Northern Vietnamese forces (which many Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam commemorate on April 30th).
My mom and my dad and most of my aunts and uncles came over by boat, when they first came over what they did know was cooking, my dad’s family had a restaurant (Viet mentioned to me after this interview that his mother originally owned the restaurant before, then sold it to his father’s family), as refugees were assigned and ended up in Chicago and had a restaurant that my family ran, my grandparents ran it with a bunch of their children. My mom was newly married to my dad so she was the best cook in the kitchen, so she cooked everything that they needed in the kitchen. That lineage is passed down through that food, her red hot beef, the recipe from that came from watching one of the cooks from that first family restaurant. He wouldn’t tell her what was it in, so she created her own recipe and started making that beef for years, and that’s what we have in our restaurant right now. For me, when I taste it, the flavor is reminiscent of Vietnamese beef jerky.
Everything on the menu contains a very basic element of Vietnamese flavor methodology. We still stick to very traditional, authentic Vietnamese flavors, even Vietnamese people will recognize that it’s Vietnamese, it’s not some Americanized version of Vietnamese food. All of the recipes we used here are my mom’s recipes that she used to serve at restaurants and at family parties throughout the years. People have told my mom she’s an amazing cook and have told her she should open up her own restaurant, but she was busy raising us to do that, and by the time we graduated, she was too old to be able to run her own place so this is a way to pass on her cooking and what she’s mastered over the years. We introduce this food for people who are unable to get good Vietnamese food.
The menu itself is pretty straightforward; four items to choose from with the ability to customize for many different tastes and flavors. Here, we keep it simple, four items with some add-ons. Vietnamese people would be able to come in and recognize each dish. For most non-Vietnamese that did not grow up around a large expatriate Vietnamese community, the menu at a Vietnamese restaurant can be quite daunting, with many different options and most menus only available in Vietnamese.
Uncompromising in his desire to introduce Vietnamese food to the non-Vietnamese masses, I asked how he found the middle ground for people. Number one the food has to taste good, doing it the right way, I grew up eating it and it was delicious. if you present people with good food, no matter what it is, they will be able to appreciate it. We compromise very little on the integrity of the actual dish, sometimes we have to make things more efficient and make those small compromises but in terms of the ingredients, we use all the ingredients that would be in the traditional serving of that particular dish.
Of course, one ingredient in particular stood out among the rest, The House Sauce that we put on the the rice bowls and vermicelli; the fish sauce, when we first opened, we had it listed as fish sauce, but then we realized a lot of people have never had fish sauce before and didn’t know what it was it. The name fish sauce sounds pretty scary if you’ve never had it before, they assumed it was going to be something really fishy and no one wants something that’s really fishy on their food. We changed the name to House Sauce and we had that extra layer to it, if they ask us what’s in it, we explain to them a blend of lime juice, pepper, garlic and fish sauce.
Vietnoms is quite new to the downtown dining scene, but in a little less than a year, it has already made an impact with the downtown locals, myself included. Ngo plans on expanding the concept in the near future to a city near you, but for now, Ngo’s plan to introduce the food of Vietnam to the rest of the world is doing just fine in its corner in downtown…for now.
VietNoms is located in downtown San Jose inside the SoFa Market. Thier hours are 11:30 to 8 Monday & Tuesday, 11:30 to 8:30 Wednesday to Saturday and 11:30 to 7 on Sundays. For more info, check out thier website here