Today, as Lakewood resident Nguyen (pronounced “win”) sits in his new restaurant named for his hometown, the drama of that time seems far away and almost unremarkable. Many Vietnamese have stories to tell, he reasoned, so his doesn’t seem that unusual.
His family would not have escaped had it not been for an uncle who wanted to eat a bowl of pho (pronounced “fuh”) before they tried to get to Saigon. It made them late. The roads were already blockaded.
Had they left earlier they would have been in the city when it was overrun, and his father would surely have been shot because he was also a general in the army.
Who knows what would have happened to Nguyen’s family… but for that bowl of pho.
Pho is a kind of soup, usually with meat and noodles in a clear broth and garnished with cilantro, sprouts, peppers and other condiments.
Food figures prominently in Nguyen’s narrative.
“I remember Saigon being very hot and crowded, but the food was good,” he said.
He also tells of a time when his father bought some food from a traveling street vendor. He liked it so much he took the man and his entire food cart home to cook for the family.
This, along with the three cooks they already had – one French, one Chinese and one Vietnamese – made for some very tasty meals.
Pho made the list of topics on his first date in Austin with his wife 20 years ago.
“She said I told her someday I was going to own a pho restaurant,” he laughed.
But first he graduated from UT School of Law, worked as a corporate lawyer and then as corporate counsel for Belo Corp. Nguyen then spent several years helping launch two software startup companies, including one with his brother. When those sold, he did well selling software to the medical profession. “I had a lot of fun doing national software sales,” Nguyen said. “I was a pretty good salesperson, but I wanted to do my own thing.”
Turns out his own thing was cooking at home for his wife and two young children. They ate really well. Alison, his Irish-bred bride, is a physician’s assistant in the emergency room at Medical City. She didn’t complain.
“I really enjoy having a wife,” was her joke about him. But she knew he would need another project.
This self-proclaimed adult with ADHD said he needed to find something he was passionate about. After nine months of tinkering with delicious Vietnamese “comfort food,” Nguyen told his wife he thought he’d open a restaurant. “She said ‘go for it,’ so I started feverishly honing my recipes,” he said.
Far from Dallas’ Asian enclaves but near his home (“because we consider ourselves East Dallas people”), Nguyen picked a place at 2537 Fitzhugh Ave., just a little east of Central Expressway. The fact that he didn’t know a thing about starting an eatery was not a deterrent.
“I just did it,” he shrugged.
“I got advice from other chefs and observed their kitchens and hired great people.”
Nguyen was frustrated that there weren’t “any decent places to eat” after midnight. “Decent,” of course, means Vietnamese.
“There is something peculiar about Vietnamese people: they only eat Vietnamese food! Every restaurant will be authentic because (our dishes) haven’t been bastardized,” he explained.
Picking the format was easy.
“There are two things I really love: 2 a.m. pho and a 2 a.m. bar,” he said with a small smile.
So DaLat now serves lunch beginning at 11 a.m., has a full bar and remains open until 2 a.m.
Dinnertime can be busy, but the place really gets rocking around midnight and stays that way until closing.
Sometimes customers come for “medicinal pho” after a big night on the town. According to Nguyen, it is the best “hangover food” because it’s not greasy.
Although the menu has a variety of items on it, beef pho is his favorite food in all the world. He loves it when it becomes his customer’s favorite as well.
“I love the relationship I have with my customers. I am already getting tons of repeat (visitors) and lots of vegetarians and vegans,” he said. “When they tell me they love what we’ve fixed, that’s immediate gratification. That’s very, very cool.”