It’s impossible to deflect Trang Nguyen’s positivity. It radiates from her, electric in her voice as she talks about her history with food, her sense of humor, and — in her words — “manifesting” her soon-to-open Vietnamese restaurant, Friendship Kitchen. “I really feel like I’m taking a situation and manifesting it for people,” she says. “When people order food, I’m saying, ‘What am I manifesting for you?’ It’s very me.”
For Nguyen, the 26-year-old former flight attendant and food cart owner, Friendship Kitchen is a manifestation of her drive, personal history, and energy, an opportunity to share some of her favorite dishes from her childhood in Vietnam while also incorporating her creativity and bubbly charm.
Nguyen moved from Vietnam to the United States at 13, which means she has spent exactly half her life in each place. When she went off to college, however, she found herself longing for dishes her parents would make, like her mother’s mi quang, tangled with turmeric noodles. “Being a broke college student away from my parents, I missed food so much. So I learned how to cook,” she says. “It gives me a part of Vietnam; it’s how I cope with being homesick.”
Early this year, Nguyen decided to open a food cart with her now ex-husband, naming it for the celebrated Hội An banh mi stand Banh Mi Phuong. But after a challenging year on a number of fronts, Nguyen struck out on her own, grabbing the tiny kitchen space between sushi spot Rollin’ Fresh and the new cocktail bar Tropicale. Later this month, she will open Friendship Kitchen on NE Glisan, specializing in Vietnamese noodle dishes, banh mi, and fruity, goofy cocktails.
Her menu is littered with a number of dishes she loves, tweaked and renamed to capture her personality: Her Vietnamese curry, cà ri, goes by the name Keep Calm and Cà Ri On. Her banh mi come filled with everything from ginger-y pork to five-spiced beef and cheddar. But some dishes she leaves un-punned or adjusted, like her restaurant’s bún bò Huế, the spicy and beef-and-pork-rich soup from her father’s hometown of Huế, Vietnam. “I almost get mad when people don’t want to try it,” she says, with a laugh. “I love it. I want to make it as popular as pho. Sorry, pho, you’ve had your moment.”
Over at the bar, Nguyen wanted to pair spirits with Vietnamese fruits — lychee with whiskey, mango and tamarind with Thai chili vodka — which she then transformed into cocktails with cheeky names, from her “Fresh Off the Boat” with ginger-infused gin to the “White Men Tears” with rum and coconut milk. “My cocktail menu is very quirky. I love people with a good sense of humor,” she says. “I don’t want people to feel offended.”
Creating a safe and comfortable space is a larger part of what Nguyen wants to do with Friendship Kitchen, from the color of the walls (“Emerald green brings so much peace and tranquility — it’s the color of Vietnam”) to the culture of the kitchen. For her, that means celebrating the other women around her, from the bread baker at Lanvin French Bakery to her chef, Jasmyne Samuel. “I want to be around people who are better than me,” she says. “My chef is also a woman of color, and I just bonded with her. We both dealt with abusive chefs in the past. It’s important to me that this is woman-owned, women-run.”
Friendship Kitchen will open at the end of November for cozy outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery. The restaurant will be located at 2333 NE Glisan Street.