Andy Nguyen wants to modernize Vietnamese food and the dining experience so they are accessible to people of all cultures and generations.
The 31-year-old Fountain Valley resident said typical, authentic pho restaurants aren't as inviting as American establishments for a number of reasons.
"A lot of these Vietnamese restaurants, if my friends outside the Vietnamese culture were to go on their own, they might feel uncomfortable there because hardly anyone speaks English," he said. "They're not used to the type of service at typical Vietnamese restaurants, where the workers aren't really interested in conversation. You go into an American fine-dining restaurant, they're happy and welcoming. The Vietnamese culture is maybe a little bit more harsh, where it's just like, 'Here's your food,' and that's it."
Nguyen, who grew up eating home-cooked pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, wants those outside the culture to enjoy the dish without intimidation. Thus, Nudo Nudo, a modernized pho restaurant in the heart of Little Saigon, was born last month.
"Here, they get the same quality food but they feel more comfortable," he said of the Westminster establishment, which plays Top 40 music and is decorated to appeal to a younger crowd, with blue and white walls and signs reading "Nudos is my life" and "The go to hangover cure." "We're not trying to change pho."
At Nudo Nudo, which is a play on the word noodle, various types of pho are served. The chefs start with broth made with beef bones and add meats like chicken and steak and vermicelli noodles.
Although the restaurant opens at 9 a.m., chefs prepare by coming in around 3 a.m. to make the broth.
Other popular offerings include Asian-style teas and appetizers, like oxtail fries, which is oxtail — gelatin-rich meat from the tail of a cow — and French fries, all topped with green onions, hoisin sauce and spicy mayo.
"It's been a really popular dish," Nguyen said of the oxtail fries. "It might even be the star of the show here."
While Nudo Nudo, co-owned by Benny Duy, is Nguyen's first pho restaurant, it is not his first eating establishment. He is an owner of After's Ice Cream in Fountain Valley, which is popular for its milky bun, a doughnut-like pastry filled with ice cream and topped with candy or nuts.
Since it opened in early 2014, the shop has become a popular destination for people looking for a late-night dessert. Because of this, lines of people often lead outside the shop, which is at Talbert Avenue and Brookhurst Street. The shop serves about 1,000 customers a day.
Nguyen is also part owner of GD Bro Burger in Santa Ana and is planning to open U Jelly, a doughnut place — which will also serve sweet jelly drinks and a confection in the style of the Vietnamese sandwich bánh mì — in Fountain Valley by the end of the year.
"A lot of opportunities are coming around after the first year of After's," he said. "I felt that I could handle all these businesses and wanted to make sure I leave an imprint on Orange County by developing other products and foods."
One other way Nguyen hopes to keep Nudo Nudo unique is by introducing another type of soup to the Little Saigon community — Japanese ramen.
"We didn't want everything that you could get in the whole Bolsa area," he said. "We wanted to have a twist at our place. That's where the ramen came in."
Ramen had been on the menu earlier, but something about it was off.
"We were testing the ramen, and we weren't happy with it, so we took it off the menu for the time being," Nguyen said. "We wanted to make sure that we continue practicing and fine-tuning it before we release it out again.
"I don't want to put out something I'm not happy with. Ramen is really an art form. It's not as easy as we thought it would be."
He said he hopes to reintroduce ramen to the menu early next year, but added that customers can still order a fried egg — something typically atop ramen — for their Vietnamese soup, something not typically done.
Nguyen said Nudo Nudo has been a popular dinner spot for millennials, who are drawn to the modern decor and different menu selections. Older generations tend to eat at the restaurant in the mornings.
The establishment originally took on a fast-casual style, in the Chipotle model, but people in the area didn't understand the process, so a traditional restaurant style with seating and menus was adopted, Nguyen said.
Nguyen, who hopes one day to have a plaza filled with his restaurants, said he is busier than ever, but it's worth it.
"The restaurant industry compared to the dessert industry is definitely different," he said. "It's a lot tougher. I definitely sympathize with these restaurant owners and how hard they work. It's really difficult. There's more going on than you think. There's a bigger appreciation here. For anyone who wants to get into this type of industry, be prepared to work."