Sunday Vinyl’s dining room was packed before 5 p.m. at a special dinner last week to celebrate the lunar new year, and to preview what’s still to come at another Denver restaurant.
Lucky red paper streamers and lanterns were strung about at the downtown eatery, which was hosting a popup for the evening. Six dishes that drew from elements of traditional Vietnamese cooking were served with thoughtful additions and art-like presentation.
By the start of the lunar new year (Tet in Vietnamese), Sap Sua was the closest it’s come to fruition.
For the last two years, husband-and-wife chefs Anthony, 33, and Anna Nguyen, 30, have been working toward opening their first restaurant, Sap Sua. The name translates from Vietnamese to “about to be” or “almost.” Now, a location is nearly finalized, and the Nguyens hope by year’s end they’ll be serving modern Vietnamese cuisine in an intimate restaurant setting.
The meal at Sunday Vinyl started with spot prawn crudo over chewy rice sheets (Banh Cuon Tom) and ended with a smoky banana leaf-steamed rice in broth with braised pork and quail egg (Banh Tet Thit Kho). Each of the dishes was meant to be surprising at first glance, and then evoke pure nostalgia after the first bite.
“It’s the feeling we want to give to guests who grew up Vietnamese and want to see themselves represented in the culinary community,” Anthony told The Denver Post after the meal. “I think it’s a true representation of what we want to bring to Sap Sua when we do open.”
The meal resonated with a packed house. “A lot of the dining room was Vietnamese, and another good portion was people who celebrate the lunar new year,” Anna observed. Anthony’s parents flew in from California just for the occasion.
“This was the first time they’ve ever had my cooking, not just me cooking at a restaurant,” he said. “It was the biggest relief for me, when my mom and dad just said, ‘We’re proud of you.’ “
Anthony was in school for nursing when he first started working in the kitchen at his mom’s Orange County pho restaurant and discovered a real passion for cooking. Meanwhile, Anna was learning the world of pastry at Little Bird Bakeshop in Fort Collins. The pair met while attending culinary school at the International Culinary Center (since closed) outside of San Jose, Calif.
“I fell in love with him at the same time that I fell in love with (Vietnamese) food,” Anna said. “I love the bright flavors, I love the herbs, I love the combination of umami and acid.”
After working in L.A. for six years at award-winning restaurants Animal and Osteria Mozza, the Nguyens moved to Longmont at the start of the pandemic: “L.A. felt really hard then,” Anna explained, “so we thought, you know, time to do it ourselves.”
The March 2020 dining room shutdown brought the couple back to Anna’s hometown, where they decided to rent a small kitchen space and sell traditional Vietnamese food for pick-up. What started as a treat for friends and family quickly grew to garner a cult following locally.
With their to-go operation taking off, Anthony and Anna began to think bigger. They also decided to give themselves a year at Anna’s parents’ house before going out on their own to live and work in Denver. Their plan: to open a restaurant that represents the first-generation American Vietnamese experience.
“The name (Sap Sua) took on new meaning,” Anthony said of the last two years of preparation. “When you’re so close to your goals, you really won’t stop grinding until you meet them.”
By 2021, Anna and Anthony were introduced to Colorado’s Frasca restaurant group, which owns the Boulder fine-dining spot and Pizzeria Locale next door to it, plus neighbors Tavernetta and Sunday Vinyl in Denver. Anna’s mentor, L.A. chef Nancy Silverton, connected the up-and-coming chefs to a restaurant group that could help propel them.
They planned two pop-up dinners to begin building momentum for Sap Sua’s arrival. The first was at the end of 2021 at Pizzeria Locale in Boulder; the second was the Feb. 1 Sunday Vinyl collaboration with fellow Vietnamese chef Long Nguyen of the food truck Pho King Rapidos.
“It’s super generous of them to do this for us,” Anna said of the restaurant, adding, “It was fun for us because Sunday Vinyl is our single most favorite restaurant in the whole state of Colorado.”
For restaurants, these one-off dinners offer something fresh and fun to curious (if pandemic-weary) diners.
For chefs, they open the door to a scene that can otherwise be impenetrable. The Nguyens don’t take this opportunity for granted, they say. When they finally debut Sap Sua, they’ll be paying the generosity forward.
“From the cook’s standpoint, you want new faces, you want new flavors,” Anthony said. “And it’s part of why coming back felt so exciting to us. To give cooks here the opportunity to work in a place that feels like home to them — we’re excited at the prospect.”
To follow Anthony and Anna Nguyen’s journey to opening Sap Sua, and for information about upcoming pop-up dinners and collaborations, check out their Instagram page at instagram.com/sapsuarestaurant/.
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