Hai Truong did not intend to build a career in cooking, but fate had other plans.
After spending his childhood in his family’s Vietnamese restaurant, Truong studied economics and art at the University of Minnesota, then worked in finance. One day — it was April’s Fool’s Day 2002, a date etched in his memory — he hit a wall, and gave his two-week notice. His boss was shocked. Why would he leave?
“Because I just couldn’t do the corporate cube life anymore,” he said. “It was eating my soul. I had no creativity left in me.”
Looking back, he says it’s one of the best decisions he’s ever made. He spent the next five years delving into all kinds of interests: computers, photography, carpentry. And of course, he supplemented his income by falling back on the family business — specifically, waiting tables — causing that long-dormant restaurant DNA, locked deep within, to bubble to the surface.
In a timing-is-everything moment, the restaurant where he grew up went on the market. Then recent newlyweds, Truong and his wife, Jessica Ainsworth-Truong, bought the place and converted it to Ngon Vietnamese Bistro (“it’s like saying long, with an N,” said Truong), heralding an exciting new chapter in the Twin Cities dining scene.
What sets Ngon apart from its dozens of Vietnamese brethren across the local dining landscape is the kitchen’s melting-pot approach to cooking, a locavorian stew where French and Vietnamese traditions — and Truong’s mom’s and grandmother’s practices — intersect with the Midwestern larder.
“When Vietnam was a French colony, the French influence was so strong,” Truong said. “And it made me wonder: All those French chefs in all those Vietnamese hotels, what were they cooking? They were using their techniques to cook the ingredients that were available to them in Vietnam.”
A 140-quart pot occupies a permanent front-and-center berth on the stove in the Ngon kitchen, and it’s the starting point for one of the region’s great dining experiences. When it comes to pho — the classic Vietnamese soup of beef broth and long, skinny, slurp-inducing rice noodles — Truong doesn’t miss a trick. First of all, he practices a vigorous anti-skimping policy with the key ingredient: soup bones.
He buys every bone he can get his hands on from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., the premium, grass-fed beef purveyor from Cannon Falls, Minn., and then proceeds, over a 36-hour period, to slowly but surely eke every last molecule of flavor out of them, filling that enormous pot with an unheard-of 40/60 ratio of bones to water.
Yeah, this is broth where the flavor isn’t a whisper, it’s a Renée-Fleming-in-full-on-aria moment, and the mesmerizing effect that all that steaming, fragrant goodness has when it arrives at the table cannot be understated.
And while fortunate are the diners who encounter Truong’s duck pho (“I had all these duck bones, so I developed a duck pho recipe,” Truong said), or his occasional ventures in pork ramen territory, this is more than a soup story. Truong has a singular way with inserting Southeast Asian touchstones into familiar ingredients, whether it’s fermented black beans with grilled lamb, seared scallops with a nuanced ginger-lemongrass sauce, anise-cured salmon or pork belly infused with the same spices that shimmer through the kitchen’s pho.
Or it could be far more basic, but similarly satisfying. Ngon is the place for the spring roll to end all spring rolls, brimming with just-picked greens and herbs from nearby Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, or for a plain-old-Tuesday-night dinner of grilled chicken, broken rice and pickled vegetables. “That’s the way I grew up eating,” he said. “A protein, rice and something vinegary and crunchy.”
An American story
Truong, now 40, was 5 years old when his Vietnamese-Chinese family landed in Minnesota in 1979. His earliest memories involve running around the common areas of the Riverside Plaza housing complex in Minneapolis, home to several generations of his hardworking clan. Another? Sitting at the kitchen table in his family’s apartment and wrapping the steamed buns that his grandmother produced for a local purveyor.
In the mid-1980s, Truong’s father Tang opened Caravelle, one of the Twin Cities’ first Vietnamese restaurants, at the corner of University Avenue and Avon Street in St. Paul. Other outlets followed, each one eventually sold to a different family member. The last Caravelle to open was in Woodbury.
“And then for my dad, it was pretty much, ‘My kids are out of college and I’m retiring,’ ” said Truong.
When the aunt who owned the original Caravelle site (by then it was called Pho Anh, for its owner, Anh Truong) decided to retire, Truong decided to buy it. He and his wife renovated the restaurant themselves on a paper-thin budget and a huge investment in sweat equity.
Jessica applied her interior design skills — she teaches the subject at Art Institutes International Minnesota — and her husband expanded his carpentry skills, building the tables and banquettes, installing windows, adding walls. Jessica later anchored Ngon’s cheery dining room by designing a walnut bar, and her ever-resourceful husband built it, buying the necessary equipment and schooling himself on how to use it. They’re quite a team.
Traces of Truong’s childhood remain in the 1920-era building, most notably in the basement office, a cramped, windowless cellar of a space.
“You take the worst place, the place that can’t be used for anything else, and that’s the office,” said Truong with a laugh.
The room is something of a time capsule, its walls brightened by two generations of Truong family graffiti. The older scribblings belong to Hai and siblings, and the more recent Matisse-in-training output is from the couple’s 4-year-old son, Khanh.
Jack of all trades
Calm and keenly observant, the self-taught chef (“self-taught” could be Truong’s epitaph) goes through life with a collector’s zeal, whether he’s adding to his 5,000-plus LP library (played on the turntable on the restaurant’s bar) or shopping the nearby Hmong farmers market with a discerning eye and a wad of cash.
A youthful obsession with bicycles graduated to a far more serious attachment to vintage cars and motorcycles. It’s an all-consuming, quasi-career of acquisition, meticulous refurbishment and occasional resale, all fueled by time-sucking forays through eBay and Craigslist and enthusiastically supported by a wide circle of similarly mechanically inclined friends.
His ever-expanding collection recently required the construction of a second garage, built last year across the alley from the couple’s Frogtown home, a few blocks from the restaurant.
The restorations are so personal that Truong names each finished triumph; a polished aluminum Norton motorcycle is christened “Margaret Thatcher” (“She’s the iron lady,” he said with a laugh), and naturally, Truong tackled the extensive leather work himself, tracking down the proper sewing machine and teaching himself how to use it.
He carries his love of mechanics into the kitchen, his natural curiosity propelling him in countless — and delicious — directions. It should come as no surprise that Truong the Tinkerer is also a home brewer. An impromptu London beer tour triggered an obsession with cask beers. It also led to Ngon’s groundbreaking beer list, made up entirely of Minnesota craft brews, a first at the time. Similarly, a trip to Barcelona sent him headlong into the world of cured meats at a time when few Twin Cities chefs had waded into the genre.
The couple’s beautiful and functional home kitchen (it helps to have a design professional in the family) doubles as a laboratory, as does his basement prep kitchen at the restaurant, with its array of mad-scientist equipment. Drop in and you may find a dehydrator pulling the moisture out of pig’s skin — for a bar snack — or a sous vide machine quietly refining bacon’s smoky-porky flavor for an ice cream.
A current preoccupation: hot sauces. Using a centrifuge, Truong is determined to develop a pho-friendly version that adds heat but doesn’t significantly alter the soup’s taste or appearance.
“I cringe every time I see people adding Sriracha to pho,” he said, and the thought is a wince-inducer; how could anyone treat Truong’s sublime broths with such disrespect? “If you want to add heat, put the sauce on the side, and dip the meat,” he said. “That’s how the Vietnamese do it.”
True to his multi-tasking self, Truong’s latest project — because, of course, he has one up his sleeve — is a mash-up of his Friday night beer-after-work ritual, his passion for transforming what others consider leftovers (including the pig heads and trotters he purchases from Red Table Meat Co. in Minneapolis), and his creative antsiness. He’s getting into the sausage business.
Specifically, a sausage cart for the Bang Brewing taproom in St. Paul. Coming soon: cumin-infused Chinese-style pork brats, or sausage fashioned from chicken, duck fat and garlic scapes — both smothered in tangy kimchi. The sky’s the limit, and Truong can’t wait.
“This is what I like about what I do,” he said. “It solves Bang’s issues, it alleviates some of Red Table’s problems, and it satisfies my need to try new things,” he said. “Besides, I love making sausages. And I like to have fun. That’s what it’s all about.”
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