When Trang Nguyen first visited now-wife Wei-En Tan’s family in Singapore, Tan’s mom, En Lin Kong, taught the young chef how to make laksa. It’s a dish Tan grew up eating, one that she found found hard to find within Portland proper. Laksa — a culinary cross-section of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisines — is a seafood-rich, coconut milk curry noodle soup, though the dish varies depending on where you eat it. In Singapore, dried shrimp is a common component of the broth, as are toppings like boiled eggs. Other versions go lighter on the coconut milk, or pile bowls high with blood cockles, also known as blood clams. Now, Nguyen is serving her version of laksa at the couple’s new restaurant, celebrating both women’s heritage in Southeast Asia.
If the name Friendship Kitchen NW: From Saigon 2 Singapore sounds like a blockbuster sequel, that’s because it is. The restaurant opened in early October within the building once home to Tan’s now-closed French restaurant Alouette; it’s the second iteration of Nguyen’s popular Northeast Glisan Vietnamese restaurant, Friendship Kitchen. Nguyen, a former flight attendant, opened the restaurant after leaving her marriage in her mid-20s; she specialized in foods she missed from her years growing up in Vietnam. She opened the restaurant the day before her birthday in 2021; a year later, she met Tan, a restaurateur and former pilot, at Alouette. A year after that, the two were married.
At the Northwest Friendship Kitchen location, Nguyen serves a combination of both Vietnamese dishes she loves and Tan’s mother’s Singaporean recipes she has adjusted and adapted. For example, the menu includes both Vietnamese bánh xèo, a coconut and turmeric omelet with bean sprouts and herbs, as well as a Singaporean chile crab and satay, grilled chicken topped with shallots and scallion oil. Nguyen’s 10-hour-simmered chicken, beef, and vegan pho broths aren’t the only noodle soups on her menu; Nguyen’s take on laksa is a bowl piled high with shrimp, tofu, soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts, and fishballs, a slick of chile oil obscuring the tangle of rice noodles underneath the surface. Tan’s mother’s version is closer to a Malaysian style, which tends to use less coconut milk, in her perspective; however, it remains a thick, rich stock, which starts with a foundation of dried shrimp, alliums, and a house spice blend.
Singaporean or Malaysian rice dishes also hold significant real estate on the menu. For instance, the restaurant serves a version of nasi lemak, a Malay-Singaporean coconut rice dish served with a range of toppings. Here, nasi lemak arrives with a crispy chicken wing, egg, fishcakes, and ikan bilis, deep fried anchovies with peanuts; a shrimp paste sauce known as belachan brings the dish together. The restaurant also offers Singaporean chicken rice, similar to Hainanese chicken rice or, perhaps better known in Portland, Thai khao man gai; Friendship Kitchen Northwest’s version is perhaps the best example of a blending of the couple’s cultures, as Nguyen uses her chicken pho stock as a foundation for the dish.
And, perhaps winking at the ghost of Alouette, the menu also includes several dishes that acknowledge the culinary ties between Vietnam and its longtime colonizer, France. A Vietnamese ragout braises chicken in a tomato-red wine sauce, and the restaurant also offers dishes like steak frites and garlic butter shrimp.
Tan and Nguyen have been thinking about transitioning Alouette into another Friendship Kitchen for some time. After first showing Nguyen how to make laksa, Kong continued to teach the chef other Singaporean dishes, coming to Portland and writing out the recipes by hand. When Nguyen first met Kong, she wasn’t introduced as Tan’s girlfriend or partner, but rather as her best friend. At that point, same-sex relationships were still criminalized within the city-state, and Tan had yet to come out to her mother. “Marriage wasn’t even on the table,” Tan says. “But she could tell.”
“She told me, ‘Thank you so much, I’ve never seen her happier,’” Nguyen says of Kong. “She’s well-fed and well-loved.”
Friendship Kitchen NW is open at 2764 NW Thurman Street.