Nearly a year ago New Saigon's owners, husband-and-wife team Thai Nguyen and Ha Pham, were feeling burned out after more than thirty years in the business, so they sold the restaurant and made plans to slowly transition the kitchen to the new owners. They kept New Saigon Bakery next door in the family under the eye of daughter and pastry chef Thoa Nguyen, while Pham continued to put in hours at the restaurant to help train new kitchen staff.
But the idea of completely relinquishing the venerable Vietnamese restaurant became more painful as the months went by. "Selling the restaurant was bittersweet," Thai Nguyen explains. "It was almost like losing a daughter."
So Nguyen and Pham made a difficult decision in the restaurant world: They changed their minds. Fortunately, the new owner was willing, so in September the couple bought back New Saigon and returned to business with new-found vigor. Nguyen ran the restaurant by day and spent nights renovating the dining room while Pham, New Saigon's chef, added a new specials board and new recipes brought back from Vietnam. The last of the upgrades were just completed, revealing a modern, stylish dining room decked out in shades of cream, gold and black, with vibrant photos of Saigon and a large, flatscreen monitor displaying a montage of daily life in the family's home country.
Pham's two new specials boards include an expanded pho roster (something guests have long requested) and a list in Vietnamese of traditional and new recipes. Nguyen explains that the specials are in Vietnamese because certain ingredients can be off-putting to Western palates, but that his staff is more than happy to translate.
"It's like a whole new restaurant," explains Thoa (one of the couple's five daughters). "And they are focusing more on the service now."
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One of the difficulties faced during the transition was that much of the staff, especially in the kitchen, had been with New Saigon for so long that each of the cooks had specialties that others couldn't replicate. Some of them stayed on under the new owner — and stayed again when Nguyen and Pham bought the place back. But there were also new cooks that Pham was training all along, so she found it difficult to take time to herself, even during the nine months of the ownership change.
Nguyen points out that the current staff consists of about 50 percent of the original crew from before the sale last year, including one server who has been on the floor for sixteen years.
Regular customers knew how difficult the last year has been for the couple and welcomed them back, even though they knew it meant relinquishing their retirement plans. Now that the renovations are complete, Nguyen says, the main goal is to keep the standards high so that New Saigon can continue to be the first choice in Denver's Vietnamese dining scene. Eventually, he hopes to transition the restaurant to one of his daughters, but he doesn't expect that to happen any time soon. The family is growing — "I have five sons now," he notes, now that all of his daughters are married — with nine grandchildren, too.
For Nguyen and Pham, buying back New Saigon means returning to days of hard work — but work that they love. For the rest of us, it means a return to form of one of the city's best and most revered Vietnamese eateries.