The Eating...Our Words 100: Minh Nguyen, Owner of Cafe TH and One of Houston's Best Front-of-House Personalities
People don't go to eat at Cafe TH just for the food. Sure, the food is enough of a draw in and of itself -- the intensely spiced vegan curry with layers of vegetable flavor, the ruddy banh mi bo kho that fills your belly with heat on a cold day -- but so is owner Minh Nguyen, who's the warmest, most affable front-of-house guy in town. People come to Cafe TH to visit with Nguyen, who's always taking orders and always remembers your name (and your mother's name, and asks how she's doing, and wants to see your vacation pictures, and tells you that he likes your new haircut).
Photo by Tam Vo
Nguyen has formed such close bonds with his customers, in fact, that the menu is largely tailored to them. He's named dishes after his regulars, such as the Ironman Jay, the Trifecta Sanjay or Abby's Uncommon Combo. And in response to customer demand for more vegan and vegetarian dishes, Nguyen researched ingredients and came up with his own recipes for dishes like vegan pho.
During the day, Cafe TH is a calm respite from a hectic work day: The lights in the zen-like bistro are mostly off inside, the restaurant lit by the light that filters softly through its front windows. Nguyen usually has soft, old-school jazz playing; Miles Davis or some slow Glenn Miller. But at night, Cafe TH -- which is only open on Thursday and Friday evenings -- becomes a hot-spot. People wait up to an hour for tables and for Nguyen's prix-fixe menu, in which you get three courses of whatever he's felt like creating that night...including his famous homemade desserts like red velvet cake. And occasionally, Nguyen even hosts an eating contest to see if anyone can defeat his Zombie Banh Mi.
Born in a tiny Midwestern farm town, Nguyen never expected to find himself running a restaurant after graduating from the University of Houston. But he's worked hard to transition the old Thiem Hung sandwich shop -- which he purchased in 2006 -- from its old, staid menu and transform it into a modern, second-generation Vietnamese-American bistro that's the toast of the town.
What does he do?
"My job is to provide delicious, fresh Vietnamese food," says Nguyen, "while attempting to expand upon the traditional spectrum."
Why does he love his job?
"I love my job because I get direct contact and immediate reactions to our cafe," says Nguyen. Clarification? "Meaning, whatever I've put into TH either pleases or displeases (maybe none of those) the customers and I have the power to make a change to impact their experience. I'm constantly learning and that eventually defines who I am as a person and how that affects others."
What inspires him about Cafe TH?
"To be honest, people inspire me," says Nguyen. "I believe that everyone you come into contact with, you can learn from. If it's negative, then you know what you don't like or who you don't want to become. If it's a positive person, I am encouraged, excited and admire that people exist like that. All of these help me become me."
What inspires him about Houston?
"If you asked me this five years ago, I would be less inclined to say that Houston does," Nguyen admits. "But growing up in the industry and actually knowing the people in the community is jaw dropping."
"Diversity and the Southern hospitality is first rate. The creativity of art, food, drinks, entrepreneurship, architecture, et cetera is plentiful and people all over the country and the world are coming to Houston which further broadens our city."
Where are his favorite places to go when he's not at work?
"I love to eat while hanging out with family and friends," says Nguyen. "That being said, I love to be alone doing whatever makes me happiest at the time. I love eating at pockets of hole-in-the-walls, to admiring the spoils of the fancier dine-ins. Taking mental notes in my head while incorporarting what makes sense for TH. Find me along Hillcroft, Bellaire, Hermann Park, Lower Westheimer, EaDo and mi casa."
If you weren't in Houston, where would you be?
Nguyen would be "in Austin, Minneapolis, possibly Portland or Denver."
What's next for him?
"I'm always defining and redefining myself," he says. "Short-term, I need to get TH in shape. Long-term I would like to expand our hours, and of course donating my time to something I'm passionate about."
The Eating...Our Words 100:
- Tiffany Tyler and Aimee Turney of Central City Co-Op
- Ellen Schwartz, Culinary Instructor & Private Chef
- James DeLeon, Certified Sommelier and Craft Beer Nut at Kroger
- Alex Padilla, Executive Chef at Ninfa's on Navigation
- Kevin Strickland, Herder of Cats at gratifi, a.k.a. Ziggy's
- Ron Chen, Owner and "Head Coach" at Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro
- Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery, the Oldest Microbrewery in Texas
- Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger
- Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer & Educator, Spec's
- Sam Ray of Republic National, Houston's Largest Wine Distributor
- Thai Van, Server Extraordinaire at Kata Robata
- Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers
- Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile
- Benjy Mason, Executive Chef at Down House
Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords