One restaurant, two food trucks offer cuisine from Southeast Asia
Foods like banh mi sandwiches, pho bo beef noodle soups and Vietnamese tacos are some of the menu items now available in Denton.
As of last fall, three new restaurant concepts aim to introduce Denton residents to Vietnamese cuisine.
Last August, James Trinh, 45, and Victoria Nguyen, 33, left their jobs and sold their home in Sugar Land to move to North Texas and open their first restaurant.
On Feb. 1, the couple opened Viet Bites at the old Tom & Jo’s location at 702 S. Elm St.
“People kept on telling me to go out on my own and do something,” Trinh said. “We started brainstorming and writing down ideas, whatever we could think of.”
Trinh spent 16 years working in the information technology field, and his wife left her career as a mortgage and real estate broker. After brainstorming for weeks last year, they came up their concept. The goal, Trinh said, would focus on providing Vietnamese food that was easier for the consumer, healthier and also contained low sodium. He also wanted to provide some classic Vietnamese dishes.
The couple took their home recipes and created a small menu complete with pho or noodle soups, egg rolls, spring rolls, sandwiches and rice bowls.
The owners said working together has been challenging, not only because it is their first business venture, but because they have three children — ages 2, 4 and 8.
When the couple first started their business, Trinh worked 20-hour days.
“He has toned it down a bit; now it’s more like 15 to 18 hours,” Nguyen said. “It is getting a lot better.”
Getting everything they needed to make the business work took time, around eight months, Trinh said.
During that period, the approximately 1,000-square-foot restaurant was completely renovated.
“We tore up everything — new walls, new AC, raised the ceiling and reinforced the beam; we built the patio area,” Trinh said about reconfiguring what previously was a barbecue and sandwich restaurant known as From Tha Heart.
The owners built new bathrooms indoors (they were previously located in an outbuilding) and most of the remodeling work was done by themselves.
Twelve part- and full-time employees later, the couple is getting good feedback and even suggestions on how to improve the business.
Anthony Manganaro, a cook at Viet Bites, admires his bosses and their work ethic.
“They enjoy making food and talking to people,” he said. “Since they opened, they seldom have nights off to spend time with their children. And they come here and create a nice atmosphere.”
Nguyen said she and her husband work closely with customers who want to modify menu items and who request changes in the menu. They listen so much to their customers that in the next couple of weeks, the owners will introduce a two-day vegetarian menu, Nguyen said.
Trinh said that along with coming up with a menu Denton residents would enjoy, coming up with the logo and the name was also a challenge.
“At first we thought we would call it Banh Mi 101, as a course number,” Trinh said. “We decided on Viet Bites, since it is Viet for ‘Vietnamese’ and ‘Bites’ for good. Our logo is a mouth bite, a Viet bite.”
Cuong “Kong” Mai, 25, has his own Vietnamese concept — a food truck called The Pickled Carrot.
Mai started his businesses by setting up a tent and selling his food selections of salads and sandwiches at the Denton Community Market last May. Now his truck is mostly stationed at Earthwise Gardens, 728 N. Elm St., with hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
“There has not been a Vietnamese restaurant here since Viet Bites opened this year,” Mai said.
Customers tell Mai and his high school friend and co-worker, Corbin Ball, that their sandwiches are addictive.
The best-selling item on the menu, Mai said, is the pork sandwich.
Mai said he will work on opening a storefront next year. But right now, he and Ball (both University of North Texas graduates) will continue to work by using the food truck.
“I went the trailer route because it is a low-cost way to start a business,” Mai said. “It was also a good way to introduce my concept to the community before I invest more in it.”
Mai said if Denton residents wanted to try Vietnamese food before, they had to go to a restaurant in Lewisville.
“That was another reason why we decided to be in Denton,” he said. “We wanted to introduce this to Denton and now we have three [restaurants].”
In September, UNT announced the addition of Nammi, a food truck offering Vietnamese fusion dishes.
The truck parked on Avenue A on the east side of the UNT Language Arts Building for two days a week during the school year.
“It is good to have more of a variety,” Mai said.
KARINA RAMÍREZ can be reached at 940-566-6878 and via Twitter at @KarinaFRamirez.
WHAT TO KNOW
Where: 702 S. Elm St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday through Saturday