Linh Nguyen owes her love of food to her mother. It began with her mother’s cooking during childhood in Vietnam, and continued when they came to the United States when Linh was ten. And then it really took off years later when her mother became chef of a restaurant run by Linh’s siblings. Crystal, as it was called, was Charlottesville’s only Vietnamese restaurant at the time. Seeing the joy her mother took from cooking for others left Linh dreaming of one day running her own restaurant. Sadly, her mother succumbed to cancer just a few years after Crystal opened, and the restaurant closed in the early 2000s.
For the next two decades, Linh’s dream was deferred by the task of raising her four children. All the while, she stayed active in the industry, helping her sister with her own food businesses: Got Dumplings and Poke Sushi Bowl. Now that Linh’s children are grown, the wait is over. Nguyen’s Kitchen opened last month in Albemarle Square, and is run almost entirely by Linh and her husband Chau, who together do all of the cooking and service.
Drawing from Linh’s mother’s recipes, the menu has an international flair. Because Linh’s grandparents were Chinese, the Vietnam native felt culturally Chinese as a child, and her mother cooked a wide range of cuisines, not just Vietnamese, and not just Chinese. The menu of Nguyen’s Kitchen reflects that – pork buns and har gow from China; edamame and takoyaki from Japan; and chicken wings and bulgogi from Korea. But, the dishes that have quickly earned the biggest following are Vietnamese – a cuisine that, since the closure of Crystal, has not always been well-represented in Charlottesville.
In the U.S., pho is king. Linh’s is two day affair, starting early one morning with a hard boil of beef parts to remove blood and impurities. Next comes a long simmer, which lasts all day. Removing the broth from the heat is one of the last tasks before the restaurant closes each night. After being refrigerated overnight, the next morning the broth goes back to the stove, this time with the addition of seasonings. Linh is hesitant to name them all, but acknowledges common pho ingredients like star anise, cardamom, and rock sugar. To order, the broth is served with traditional accompaniments: noodles, bean sprouts, and herbs.
While pho is the American crowd-pleaser, Linh says her Vietnamese guests tend to order a different noodle soup: bún bò Huế. Similar to pho, the dish named for the the city Huế has a more citrusy and fruity aroma, thanks to plenty of lemongrass and Linh’s (not-so) secret ingredient, pineapple.
There’s also the traditional Vietnamese sandwich banh mi, with house-made mayo. And, a vermicelli bowl, with a choice of protein, like grilled pork.
And, there’s even a contraption that shakes up bubble drinks to order.
Nguyen’s Kitchen is a small, order-at-the-counter joint, and most guests take their food to go, but there are a few tables for on-premises dining.
While Linh long dreamed of opening her own restaurant, just one month in, the experience has already exceeded her expectations. “I love to cook,” said Linh. “Now that I cook for other people, I know why it made my mother so happy.”