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Beyond Bánh Mì: This San José Pop-Up Plays With Classics of Vietnamese Cuisine

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Two people smile and looks at the camera in front of a colorful tent with the words "Hết Sẩy" written on it.
(From left) Hieu Le and DuyAn pose for a portrait at their pop-up restaurant Hết Sẩy at the Kaiser Farmers' Market in Santa Clara on Aug. 18, 2023. Hết Sẩy, which means 'awesome,' launched in 2020 and specializes in dishes from Southern Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Our Flavor Profile series looks at how people, some with little or no experience, started successful food businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DuyAn Le and Hieu Le have a habit of diving in feetfirst together. They knew within three days of meeting each other they would marry. “We like to jump in without any plans and figure it out,” said Hieu. “That’s like the theme of us, for sure.”

How could they possibly know so soon? It’s not just that they both shared the same cultural heritage from the same part of southern Vietnam. It’s also that when they spend time in the kitchen together, they get excited about food in the same way.

The couple started Hết Sẩy three-and-a-half years ago during the pandemic, jumping in feetfirst into the food business. Hieu spent three years as a line cook back in college. DuyAn was working retail at Costco. But they decided to make a pivot.

Today, Hết Sẩy pops up at least three times a week, mainly at farmers markets like the one on Fridays in front of Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara. Part of their mission? To shine a light on the flavors of the Mekong Delta, famous for its fish and fresh produce.

A line of people wait in front of a colorful tent with the words "Hết Sẩy" written on it.
People wait in line at the Hết Sẩy pop-up restaurant at the Kaiser Farmers’ Market in Santa Clara on Aug. 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I want to showcase my regional food, the culture as well,” said DuyAn. “We are the rice basket of Vietnam, as well as all the produce, a lot of fish,” said DuyAn, whose family is Ming–Đại, or from the Mekong Delta region.

“The way that I think a lot of the Ming–Đại people approach food is that there’s a lot of abundance, in terms of flavor.” said Hieu. “There’s a lot of creativity, playing around with sour, savory, sweet, bitter even.”

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They’re also looking to deconstruct and reconstruct familiar dishes, to pull in the flavors they’ve encountered in California, and apply those to the Mekong sensibility. They deliver a mash-up that delights the taste buds even if you are not particularly sophisticated about Vietnamese cuisine.

“We also like using the fresh produce here, like strawberry and fennel. They are going well together,” said DuyAn.

It’s been a couple of generations now since a wave of Vietnamese migration washed over California, and bánh mì and phở joined the pantheon of beloved dishes in the state. The Les like to play with the dishes they grew up with in a way they acknowledge their elders might not appreciate or understand. Hieu’s family in particular.

Hieu said most of his family said: “No one will get it.” They’re worried that non-Vietnamese customers won’t appreciate the food, or that the flavors won’t work.

A bowl of rice and shredded meat is arranges on a countertop.
Jason Choate prepares a savory sticky rice dish at the Hết Sẩy pop-up restaurant at Kaiser Farmers’ Market in Santa Clara on Aug. 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But DuyAn’s family got on board early, including her mother who is coming to live with them from Vietnam. “My family encouraged us, “ she said. But they also offered some advice. “‘If you’re going to do something, focus [on it],’” they told her.

The results are a little different from what you’re likely familiar with if you’re a fan of Saigon-centric Vietnamese cuisine. Take a dish like xôi mặn. It’s a rice dish, a classic comfort food in Vietnamese households. Which means, of course, that every household plays with the concept. It’s not just that the lạp xưởng, or Chinese-style smoked sausage is made from scratch. DuyAn and Hieu also center local ingredients. The sticky rice cooked in banana leaves with coconut water comes from Koda Farms in the Central Valley. The strawberries and fennel come, when they’re in season, from the local farmers markets.

“We’re evolving it to what we think is the best version of what this dish is meant to do,” Hieu said. “By incorporating things like a coconut chili sambal, which is an inspiration from South India, a flavor we’re really into, and incorporating something uniquely us and uniquely Bay Area.”

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Then there’s the bánh mì Hết Sẩy style, served up by Quynh-Mai Nguyen in the Hết Sẩy tent. She first discovered the Les as a happy customer, and then started working for them.

“Bánh mì basically means bread in Vietnamese,” Nguyen explained, as she put together the dish. “There’s different types of bánh mì with different toppings and ingredients. This bánh mì is made with braised pork and egg that’s cooked in coconut water, and it’s put inside the bánh mì with pickled mustard, as well as some bird’s eye chili and garlic. And then it’s topped off with the braised juices from the meat and egg.”

Alex Shoor, a candidate for San José City Council, has become a regular at the Rose Garden Farmer’s Market pop up in San José.

“My girlfriend and I got three of the bánh mì sandwiches,” said Shoor, grinning. “We got a chicken one, a broccoli, goat cheese and apple one, and the braised pork. So we did a sampling.” His favorite? The braised pork.

Shoor says he always appreciates how creative Hết Sẩy is with their ingredients. “They’ve got unusual combinations, and they’ve definitely exposed me to new stuff over the years.”

A person wearing an apron and plastic gloves works with food in a large metal steamer.
Simon Le prepares dishes at the Hết Sẩy pop-up restaurant at the Kaiser Farmers’ Market in Santa Clara on Aug. 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Like many couples in the food business, the Les are trying to figure out the financial calculus of making a pop up work. In their case, one partner still works a day job in tech. But Hết Sẩy is running, in large part, thanks to online crowd funding and the couple’s dynamic Instagram feed. It’s taking some time for the money to roll in, but Hieu’s optimistic.

“I think we’re creating something that’s uniquely us and new. there’s a lot of things that we’re excited for,” he said. “And as long as we are able to keep creating and people are interested in what we’re doing, that’s the fulfillment that we’re looking for.”

A person in a large red hat pours drinks into plastic cups.
Hết Sẩy co-owner DuyAn prepares a coffee drink at the pop-up restaurant at the Kaiser Farmers’ Market in Santa Clara on Aug. 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

 

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