May 15, 2018 – It doesn’t feel like so long ago that Mikey Nguyen was working 10 hour days doing nails at a salon he opened at just 19, with money earned working at Burger King, McDonald’s and Taco Bell as a teenager.
He owned and operated the salon for eight years, all while dreaming of something besides clear coats and French tips, like opening a family restaurant built around the foods of his heritage—bahn mi, boba and “broken” rice included—at a price point that wouldn’t break the bank.
“I wanted to feed people,” he says. “Not just work on their beauty.”
But it was a while ago, more than a decade all told. It just flew by really fast.
Opening and operating two popular restaurants—and as of this week, a third—and having three kids to match can do that to an aspiring entrepreneur.
The first two restaurants have become local institutions. With the wages Nguyen patiently saved from high school on, he and his wife Hoc opened Chopstix in 2009, right after getting married. They’re planning a big 10-year celebration for 2019.
It quickly became a hit among younger eaters (many from his nearby alma mater, Seaside High) and was voted Best Cheap Eats in many dining polls. Popular dishes include the five-spice grilled chicken, barbecue-pork-and-shrimp noodle bowls and the Vietnamese-French baguette sandwiches with paté and/or pork (bahn mi), which are hard to find anywhere in the area.
Its sister Monterey spot opened not long thereafter, and despite expanding its seating a year later, is often packed. (The versatile menu is the same as the Seaside spot, with things like green papaya salads, bowls of pho with rare beef and brisket, beef glass noodles and lots of vegetarian options.)
About a year and a half ago, the Seaside Chopstix moved down the street into the former Taste of Vietnam at 1868 Fremont Blvd., taking advantage of its expansive space, long bar and flat-screen TVs.
The old location was originally slated to become Poke Stix, but the Nguyens had a change of heart and set to work on something more time-honored than trendy: traditional cơm tấm, or “broken rice,” an old-school Vietnamese dish made from fractured rice grains typically served with grilled pork.
At the end of last week, after a year in the making—and in the makeover—Plates opened quietly in the original Chopstix’s former spot at 1988 Fremont Blvd.
“We wanted to do a little more traditional food you don’t get at Chopstix,” Nguyen says. “More Vietnamese soul food.”
The broken rice combo is the flagship dish, often appointed with suon nuong, a pork chop Nguyen describes as “flat as a plank and fantastically saturated with lemongrass, fish sauce and liquid caramel.”
Eaters can also add a nest of bi, translucent strands of shredded pork skin that are dusted with roasted rice powder and larded with nubs of pork; fried eggs crackling at the edges, with hard yolks; or a fluffy cake of shrimp mashed until its texture approaches mousse and it’s bundled in a crispy bean-curd skin.
Other classic headliners include the rice porridge soup and the homemade, family-recipe udon noodles in slow-simmered pork broth with fish cakes and spare ribs, the early best-seller. Flavored shave ice is another big draw.
“I’m proud of the udon noodles (pictured above),” Nguyen says. “It takes a lot of effort and preparation. We put a lot of heart and soul into it.”
Vegans and vegetarians will delight in hearing popular Mon Chay, which wowed in the Carmel Barnyard for a hot minute with things like pickled lotus root salads, crispy orange eggplant and white seaweed plates, has inspired a whole page of the menu. (Mon Chay closed after a short run when Nguyen and his sister Ty had an eager buyer plus too much on their plate.)
An entire page of the menu is completely Mon Chay territory, with its logo appearing at the top.
Meanwhile the interior reflects months of reinvention, with crystal lighting and quartz countertops setting off the space.
Nguyen insists he’s stopping at three restaurants, and three kids, but has every intention of raising both late into life.
“It’s something we want to do, we did it and I’m so proud of it,” he says. “We want to be here for a long time, a family restaurant that lasts.”
Plates Com Tam is open 11 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. at 1988 Fremont Blvd. in Seaside. More at 394-7653 or www.platesgrill.com.