An institution reborn

Andy Nguyen’s

2007 Broadway
Sacramento, CA 95818

(916) 736-1157

A few weeks ago, my husband came home from an errand on Broadway with sad news. “Andy Nguyen’s is closed,” he said. It was one of the first places we’d tried upon moving to Sacramento. More importantly, it was the closest Vietnamese takeout to our house, so this seemed like a blow.

Happily, the closure turned out to be temporary. Andy Nguyen’s not only has reopened, but it also has entirely reinvented itself. The Nguyens are devoutly Buddhist and vegetarian. In an effort to integrate their spiritual lives with their work in the restaurant and to promote Buddhist principles of loving kindness for all living things, they have made a change that may seem drastic to their regulars customers: Andy Nguyen’s will now serve no meat products at all. The family explained the change in a statement written for the opening by noting that the new menu “remains true to our traditional home-cooking style, while reflecting our beliefs regarding compassion, a sustainable environment, and care for the vibrant health of our customers.”

At the same time, the restaurant’s physical space has been modernized and will be a pleasant surprise to those who visited the old Andy Nguyen’s. In place of the former, rather dingy paint and unassuming décor, there are now walls painted in a pale yellow-beige and deep red (colors that are a subdued echo of the vibrant saffron and red of Tibetan monks’ robes). Behind a counter are shiny black tiles, and a stylish dark wainscoting runs around the room. At the opening ceremony, the wainscoting’s dark paint was still a little sticky; another guest mentioned that the family had been there until 4 a.m. putting the finishing touches on the space.

Orchids and Buddhist figurines dot the room, and on the walls are photos of the Dalai Lama and the Sera Mey Monastery from the Nguyen family’s recent trip to south India—a trip that was part of the inspiration for the change in the restaurant. (Robert Light, who, along with his wife, accompanied the family on the trip, is the photographer.)

The Sera Mey Monastery is home to thousands of monks—refugees from Tibet. Its abbot, Lobsang Jamyang Rinpoche, was at Andy Nguyen’s for a series of celebratory opening ceremonies last Friday, beginning with a late-morning blessing and lunch for family and friends. The sense of excitement among the attendees was clear—as was the eagerness of some of Andy Nguyen’s loyal customers, several of whom came to the door during the ceremony in hopes that the restaurant was open for business again. (It would open to the public the next day.) I hope the menu will include the delicious soup we had for lunch, with its thick, round rice noodles; several kinds of soy products; and slightly spicy lemongrass broth.

About 100 people were packed into the small room for the evening talk. Lobsang Jamyang spoke on Buddhist philosophy, expanding on the theme of compassion, particularly as it related to the Nguyens’ new venture. “My hope tonight is that we can cultivate loving kindness for all sentient beings,” he said. “Whether you consider yourself religious or not religious, that is the most invaluable thing for this world.”

Jennine Tran, a daughter in the Nguyen family, responded by thanking the speaker. The audible emotion in her voice underscored the family’s commitment to its new project. “You helped us realize our dream of opening a vegetarian restaurant, a dream that has been very dear to our heart,” she said. She then turned to the audience: “We thank you for being loyal customers,” she said. “We hope you will continue to give us the support and love that you have for more than 20 years.”

After Tran spoke, the guests’ attention began to turn to the lavish trays of food laid out on the restaurant’s back counter. There was a tangy, slaw-like salad of shredded carrots and other vegetables, topped with slices of soy that were surprisingly like marinated beef. Excellent fresh spring rolls were filled with vegetables, herbs and tofu. (The kitchen staff was rolling them as fast as it could to keep up with the hungry crowd.) There were also unbelievably crunchy, fried tofu “skins”; a sweetish, saucy tofu and vegetable stir-fry over rice; soup with the slightly gelled consistency of Chinese hot-and-sour soup; and toasts topped with something that tasted a bit like traditional shrimp paste, but lighter, fresher and shrimpless. It was all excellent and distinctive, without being off-puttingly unfamiliar. I had hoped to take a look at the new menu, but it wasn’t yet back from the printer. However, based on what I sampled, I’ll go back to try out more dishes.

I’d be drawn to the restaurant in any case. It’s unusual and heartening to find an establishment, especially in the cutthroat restaurant business, where the owners are willing to take a chance on integrating their beliefs with their business practices. Sacramento is not rich in purely vegetarian restaurants, but the new selections at Andy Nguyen’s should be a good test of this changing city’s adventurousness. I hope that the city will sustain the warm and welcoming spirit of this new old favorite.