Chef Chat, Part 2: Minh Nguyen of Café TH
Today we continue our chat with Nguyen, discussing the obstacles to running a restaurant in a dead Chinatown, and why Café TH's banh mi is so good.
EOW: Since this location is in a shell of what used to be the downtown Chinatown, what obstacles are you facing due to this and how are you planning to overcome them?
Nguyen: You're right. Chinatown has moved away, but my vision has always been with the east side. This part of the Inner Loop is kind of an unclaimed territory. The residences are slowly building up. The Kim Son here is like a landmark in Houston, and we're right behind Kim Son. The good thing is that people do come to this area. The bad thing or an obstacle is that Kim Son overshadows us. We are smaller. From the outside, we're somewhat of a hole-in-the-wall. And that intimidates some people. But I've come find that there are just as many people who love hole-in-the-walls. We're also lucky in that we have all the nearby suppliers from the old Chinatown. So I can walk a few blocks to get my fresh ingredients direct from the warehouse. So there are a lot of positives in the area too. In addition to the growing residences, there are also the upcoming soccer stadium and promenade. Bars are also starting to pop up around here. I think I'm in a prime location. It's just going to take a while and it will take a lot of patience. The biggest obstacle right now is parking. Our available parking is very limited, and that has been a problem on busy nights.
EOW: Just have people park at Kim Son and walk over. That's what I did for this interview.
Nguyen: (laughs) Well, that's the unspoken rule. People do it, but I never encourage it because I don't want people getting towed. But despite any obstacles, I try to stay positive. If my numbers don't add up right, I try to find something I can work on to improve things. I think that's part of growing. You take the bad with the good, right?
EOW: Tell me about how you became partners with and then ultimate bought out the former owners.
Nguyen: When I attended University of Houston, I had been here many times. This was where students come. I was familiar with the former owners. I heard that they were selling through the landlord that owns this property. The landlord used to buy pastries at the bakery I used to work at. So when I came in to meet with the former owners, the lady was like, "Hey, what are you ordering today?" When I told her I was there to meet about buying the restaurant, she was shocked because she knew me as a UH student and was not expecting me as the buyer. So for two weeks I came in and sat in that [corner] chair there, ran the numbers, analyzed the traffic, and studied what people ordered. So long story short, I'm in my fourth year now.
EOW: So it sounds like you've overcome some of the early growing pains and still have the heart for this.
Nguyen: Oh yeah. If I didn't, I would have gotten out years ago. I have fun cooking, though some of it gets monotonous. That's why I have the dinner service. It's when I get to be creative and make whatever I want. The best part is meeting all different types of people. It's never boring. It's fun learning a little bit about what makes people tick.
EOW: I've heard good things about your banh mi. Tell me why it's so good.
Nguyen: Well, for starters, we cure all our meats here. From what I was taught, which is a great recipe to begin with, I just took that recipe and cut out about 25 percent of the fat. So our meats are healthier. We char-grill our meats every day. A lot of the things I do take more work on my part, but I'm really proud of it. I choose the best ingredients, a lot of which are local and organic. I went out of my way to find a great bread supplier. We already had one, but when new management took over that bakery, the quality became inconsistent. So I spent six months and ended up choosing a bakery that's not one of the typical Vietnamese bakers that supply other banh mi shops.
EOW: What's an example of something that you're most proud of but requires more of your time?
Nguyen: That would be my char-grilled meats. The former owner would marinate a large batch at once, divide it into smaller portions and freeze those portions. So the grilled meats would be thawed out the night before they're grilled. I don't freeze my meats. I buy the right amount of pork, trim out the excess fat by hand, and marinate that batch. The same goes with the chicken. It used to be we got the chicken already frozen. Now, we get fresh chicken straight from the distributor. I never freeze our grilled meats, so it's fresh.
Tune in tomorrow to see what deliciousness Nguyen serves up.