Chef Nickie Tran will bring the dishes she perfected at Cau Ba Quan to Kau Ba Saigon Kitchen.
Kau Ba Saigon Kitchen will offer both Viejun and traditional Vietnamese dishes.
Tran would never call her VIejun "fusion." It's just "modern Vietnamese."
Chef Nickie Tran is an expert at living life on the fly. Skilled and adaptable, she’s thrived at the turns that she hasn’t seen coming. Now, she’s taking what she’s learned in Vietnam and bringing it to Space City.
You can get a taste of Kau Ba Saigon Kitchen, opening in Montrose, in early June. The new Houston restaurant is in the 2502 Dunlavy space, formerly home to wine bar Bacchus.
Four years ago, Tran was thrown into the deep end. She found herself standing in the open kitchen of Cau Ba Quan in Ho Chi Minh City, her chef nowhere to be seen. It was the grand opening day of her first-ever restaurant.
Over more than a few drinks, Tran and a friend had decided she should launch a seafood restaurant. The whim took her far. Within five days of meeting the contractor, it was up and running.
Well, except for the chef. He never showed.
Opening day, Tran rolled up her sleeves and cooked off-the-cuff. And with that, “Viejun” earned was born. Her trademark Vietnamese and Cajun blend —which she would never, ever call fusion, she tells PaperCity emphatically— took off. Its cult status even earned it coverage on celebrity chef David Chang’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious.
“My other two restaurants, I didn’t know anything,” Tran says. “I was just thrown into it by accident.” She learned every day, doing what came naturally: concocting Viejun specialties.
“I thought I would bring something the Vietnamese didn’t know,” Tran says.
That quite literally boiled down to Louisiana Crawfish Shrimp & Crab Boil, courtesy of her years in Houston from 2004 to 2008, and frequent trips since. Cajun Kitchen, which she counts as one of her favorite Bayou City outposts, was solid flavor inspiration.
“I threw everything in and cooked with my own imagination. That’s how it happened,” Tran says. “Now I feel comfortable enough to try to make it in Houston,” where she’s wanted to open a place for sometime now.
“I always feel like Houston is my home. It’s where I feel most at home.”
Saving the Old Recipes
Tran substitutes big, fresh river prawn for crawfish. In Vietnam, patrons prefer prawns, with their supple texture and satisfying meat-to-work ratio.
“The Vietnamese like everything fresh, nothing frozen,” Tran says.
That is consistent with Tran’s own healthy cooking style, which is largely organic, includes almost no sugar, and forbids MSG. Vietnamese dishes stand out from other Asian cuisine in Tran’s view because “each dish is different.”
Kau Ba Saigon Kitchen will follow that format, but offer two distinct menus. The much-hyped Viejun will make up one menu. The other one will be highly traditional Vietnamese food, lost recipes of Saigon.
The traditional Vietnamese recipes used to be passed from generation to generation, but people don’t want to do it anymore, Tran says.
“It’s too complicated,” she notes. The chef plans to preserve the traditions — the right way. It won’t be easy. The conventional cuisine features rare ingredients and leaves with medicinal properties.
The seven-course beef dinner takes some time to prepare, as the name suggests. Think anything and everything: pate, satay, sausage, hotpot and beyond.
“I don’t want it to get lost and the young people not to know what it is anymore,” Tran says.
You can also expect her popular, passion fruit-filled, five-color Happy Salad. Vietnamese staples will have their rightful place, but every day finds aren’t the emphasis.
“I want to show people that Vietnamese food is not just pho, not just Bahn mi,” Tran says. She wants people to look beyond spring rolls.
In addition to the set menus, specials will pop up from time to time. “I always have the concept to work with what I have,” Tran says
New dishes only take a peek into an unfamiliar pantry, a spark of inspiration, and often as little as 10 minutes. “I’ll create a noodle dish that’s not traditional. But I’ll use all the traditional ingredients,” Tran says. “I want people, Vietnamese people, everyone, to look at my cooking and see a different angle.”
For Kau Ba Saigon Kitchen’s decor, expect a Saigon pre-1975 vibe, with old pictures of Saigon lining the walls, and a simple look. It’s an informal residence, not a commercial building.
“And it felt like home when I picked the restaurant,” Tran says. She’s working on a liquor license so she can show off her inspired cocktails. Fruity elements are a given, but she goes big with vegetables, spices — and even fish sauce, on occasion.
Tran will act as the main chef for months as the restaurant gets established. She’s eager to make the shift to Houston.
“Saigon is too crowded for me. Too many scooters,” Tran says. “I love to drive my big pickup truck, and I can’t do that in Saigon.”
As she settles in, she’s already forming a list of who to call up. Fellow chef Chris Shepherd gets the first ring. When she decided to open a restaurant here, “He’s the first one I talked to. He’s been very supportive of me,” Tran says. “Whenever I asked him a question, he always has an answer for me.”
For his part, Shepherd can’t wait for Nickie’s arrival.
“Her take on Vietnamese food will be enlightening for me,” Shepherd tells PaperCity. He praises her knowledge of current Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the Vietnamese residents in Houston moved before the war, and prepare a different cuisine.
“She’ll bring that current perspective to Houston,” Shepherd says. “I can’t wait.”