Ngon Vietnamese Bistro «We knew this was right for us and we knew light… — Volkswagen Caravelle

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Ngon Vietnamese Bistro: We this was right for us, and we knew rail was coming

Hai Truong was in Vietnam and came to the United with his family at age five. was in 1979. While the Truong lived in various places—Minneapolis, St. Mounds View, Maplewood—Truong’s connection has been to the storefront at the of University and Avon Aves. where his father opened his Caravelle Restaurant in 1984, and Truong has been the chef-owner of Vietnamese Bistro since

Knowing that University would soon be served by rail was one of Truong’s main for leaving the corporate world and his own business. Like Mike owner of Best Steak down the street, Truong for Central Corridor light construction. “When we opened the we knew that this was for us and we knew that the light was going to come through.”

a lot of history here”

I used to to work here when I was busing tables, Truong He recalls a play area in the with a television set. spend a lot of time here in the as kids.

When not helping his at the restaurant, Truong enjoyed out on University Avenue. His favorite was Crazy Louie’s, an army store, which he describes as, of like Ax Man, but I thought it was a lot He adds, “I was little then, so probably seemed cool.”

Truong’s father sold the at that location to his sister—Truong’s opened a handful of others, one on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, and one in Aunts and uncles ran each of the

Under his aunt’s ownership, the on University Avenue became Pho Then, when she retired, saw an opportunity to return to the family and take it in new directions. “I wanted to get into the restaurant industry,” he “And my father knew I was looking for a restaurant.”

Future rail service fit with vision of Ngon as a destination

“The main thing was we didn’t want to open a restaurant, where it’s for people that work in the or who pass it by….With construction on, people are traveling to come to us so what if it takes a couple turns?”

This is one thing distinguishes Ngon from businesses that have primarily to a neighborhood clientele.

We to…create a destination spot and base through word of and that helped us survive rail very well a lot of people made a very effort to come.

At the same Truong is quick to point out he is committed to the Frogtown neighborhood, he and wife Jessica Ainsworth-Truong living prior to opening “I live two-and-a-half blocks so it’s part of who we are and what we to do and what we want to be part

Living close by and not being to conventional work schedules has the couple to care for their son and maintain the kind of family they seek. “Usually if I’m like right now, home with our son. in a situation where she teaches and I’m to do this. And our schedule’s flexible where he doesn’t go to any type of And that’s what we really to do.”

That Ngon is housed in the location of his dad’s first is highly significant, too. a lot of history there.” Truong customers who remember him as the little kid who their table.

A space and with flair

As a chef and owner, Truong is doing he loves to do. He gets to be creative spend time with his “That’s why I left the finance because it was putting me in a dark that I didn’t want to be

Creativity extends to such as building a stunning new bar. “I it in my garage, my basement, and my friend’s Truong and his wife share an of aesthetics. She teaches at the Minneapolis of Art, while he studied and art at the University of Minnesota.


When what the space was like he purchased it, Truong remarks, just say there was one window, three by five. It was dark. think classic Chinese with red stuff.”

Giving it a makeover was a huge joint He credits Jessica with of the restaurant’s transformation. “My wife interior design so she designed the and built it all up.”

What all did do?

We put it in new floors, new walls, molding, What you see was not here. Literally. We the tables, built the boxes, the banquette, built the bar. nothing here that was

The owner’s creativity and ingenuity also instrumental in navigating the that accompanied light construction. “I anticipated the light a food truck to promote the during construction.” That was a that Truong embarked on a buddy, Atom Petchman. also my neighbor, so for summer we working on restoring a ’67 Volkswagen bus and it into a food truck. And year we headed out” to people about Ngon.

with the space, the menu is a departure from the Caravelle “They had more of a Chinese and with Vietnamese and also had a pho says Truong. “We’re a restaurant. We went for that Vietnamese with a stronger influence.”

Charging a fair fosters a fairer, healthier

While other business say that light rail is the biggest challenge they’ve Ngon’s owner has found else more daunting: mindsets and expectations about a or Asian restaurant.

For one thing is a scratch restaurant, so dishes longer to prepare. Its prices may be higher as well, and for several reasons. Ngon’s owner a premium on treating workers and equitably. I do staff a lot of employees and we do pay our well. We take care of (In contrast to many independently-owned along the Central Corridor, is staffed primarily by non-family 15 to 20 in all.)

This value decisions about whom to do with. “We buy from vendors take care of their including by providing health coverage.

Purchasing fresh, organic, produce is part of the equation, “I designed the menu for the way that we eat at how we like to go out to eat. We wanted nutritious, scratch, local know where things from.” This means at farmer’s markets, Stone’s Urban Farm, Midwest Company, and purchasing from with extensive local

Some distributors share lists with Truong. He plans menus around in season. Long winters it difficult to do this year-round, but owner says he is able to clear of factory feed as sources of meats.

Ngon’s ‘Break the chain: eat, and buy locally,” carries over to tap

“We have enough to fill our with Minnesota beers, so just do it. It goes to the whole of supporting a local economy.” As the of local craft breweries to grow, Ngon is striving to pace. They are in the process of 12 more lines in order to more local breweries.

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All of choices mean that the of a meal may be higher than patrons expect.

In the end, we charge a low price, we don’t a high price, we charge a price.

That’s something customers have begun to and appreciate.

Investing in the area to bright future

While business owners are apprehensive the changes taking place their doors—some are quite that the benefits promised reach them—Hai Truong is with what he’s and optimistic about the future.

When we first started Caravelle) there were problems and stuff. In the ‘80s. I it’s still around but it was a worse then….I remember correcting that, just the police a lot more often.

rail construction has resulted in forms of investment along the “When the light rail through I was happy that didn’t do a cheap job of it. It’s ‘Oh it’s going through a neighborhood, it doesn’t matter,’ but actually using bricks, materials, and building something to versus just getting it All of which adds up to a more environment for Ngon’s current and customers, which means business.

I think it’s to be a very positive effect. be good for business. It’ll it easier for people. People stop here for dinner and go to the The revitalization of the area, investments properties are happening more and

As the opening of the light rail and as Ngon marked its seventh Truong decided it was time for touchups. “It was time for us to like the floors, so we got the floors re-sanded, I the bar, put this thing in, it was a smaller bar, and I put this in, that made it a lot more Just fresh color So it’s just one of those after seven years you need to touch up.”

As for the Hai Truong expects to expand eventually, providing banquet “…and hopefully we’ll add We’re leaving it open.

To learn more about Vietnamese Bistro and its owners to an audio version of the interview Hai Truong and read the full here. and watch a short featuring Hai Truong. produced by Luis Morales Alegria. assistance was provided by Luce and Mary Turck.

To see more and to keep up with news and plans, visit Ngon’s and Facebook page. and follow on .

From the website: “Ngon is a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Frogtown. We specialize in providing food using fresh, and sustainable ingredients. We also a full bar that focuses on Minnesota craft beers and a line of craft spirits and

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro is at 799 University West in St. Paul.

article is part of a Central small business oral project funded through a of Minnesota Historical Cultural Grant.

Articles in this include:

• Along the Corridor: Avenue business owners change

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