Stefan Nguyen loves introducing Americans to Vietnamese food.
"One time I recommended a dish that had fish sauce," he said of a friend who had never tried Vietnamese food. "So I made sure to tell her to try a little first before she went full on into it. I looked kind of scared when she started eating it — but she loved it."
"I underestimated her palate and her sense of smell," said Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and came to the United States at age 13. "What I learned is that you can never underestimate people's ability to explore or their willingness to try things."
Every Friday night, Nguyen organizes a dinner at one of the many Vietnamese or Vietnamese fusion restaurants in Orange County's Little Saigon as a way to introduce non-Vietnamese residents to the cuisine — and to give Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans an opportunity to reconnect with their heritage.
The idea for the group, called Viet Taste Buds, came about because Nguyen himself wanted to learn more. Growing up in Tennessee, he said that he didn't have much connection to his roots, so when he moved to Orange County he wanted to take advantage of living near the largest Vietnamese population in the United States.
He first started a cultural club that focused on Vietnamese American film and literature, but it didn't get much traction. Nguyen realized a bigger draw would be food, so he started planning Friday night dinners at Vietnamese restaurants, and the concept took off.
"There's very little barrier to entry with food," said Nguyen.
Now between 25 and 40 people show up to his weekly dinners, and he also expanded the events to include a Saturday afternoon boba tea and dessert crawl.
And no matter what a person's background, he said that there's something to learn.
Tim Le said that growing up in Riverside, he didn't know many other Vietnamese Americans — but Viet Taste Buds gives him that opportunity now.
"As you grow older, at least for me, you kind of think about your roots," said Le, a mechanical engineer. "And so I wanted to start searching for a way to reconnect."
Meanwhile, for Trinh Nguyen, who grew up in Vietnam and now works as a mechanical engineer in Anaheim, Viet Taste Buds is a way for her to introduce others to her culture.
"Americans are used to hamburgers, which have a soft bun — then they try the Vietnamese sandwich with the French baguette, which is hard and crunchy," she said. "They say, 'How long has it been sitting there? They must have left it outside for a few days.' And I'll say, 'It's fresh!' And after a few tries they say, 'It's good.'"
"When I introduce them to things and they like it, I feel happy. I feel proud."
Shaun Nguyen Ly, co-owner of the restaurant Nguyen's Kitchen, which has locations in Orange and Costa Mesa, said that he's "not at all" surprised that Vietnamese food is now gaining popularity among Orange County's non-Vietnamese residents. (Viet Taste Buds held a dinner at Nguyen's Kitchen on Sept. 1.)
"Our flavors are very bold," said Ly. "But they're not heavy — we don't use so much oil or batter. We emphasize the ingredients, the vegetables, the fresh meat, the fish sauce."
Stefan Nguyen has also seen a growing interest in Vietnamese food, something he attributes to the emergence of innovative Vietnamese fusion eateries — such as Afters Ice Cream and the Loop Handcrafted Churros — that aren't overtly ethnic. This gives newcomers an easier entry into a new type of cuisine.
"It makes it less intimidating," said Nguyen. "So it draws all kinds of people."
For more information, visit bit.ly/viet_taste_buds.