Vietnamese cuisine with Midwestern hospitality is what Phong Nguyen, co-owner and executive chef of Vietnamese Monsoon Cuisine, cooks up at his brand new restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids.
“It’s always been my dream to open a Vietnamese restaurant,” Nguyen told Revue. When he arrived in America in 2012, he was inspired by the portrait of a Vietnamese woman that hung in a fine dining restaurant he walked into. “She wore Western clothes, but still had the Asian look. It was beautiful.”
This marriage of Vietnamese traditions and culture with the Midwest was at the forefront of Nguyen’s concept for his already thriving restaurant. After cooking at many well-known restaurants around Grand Rapids, the former business and marketing student teamed up with three investors to make his dream come true.
He hired a Vietnamese architectural firm to design the sleek and creative interior, which features a brand new bar, booths, rattan light fixtures and wall decorations from Vietnam.
Above the bar, a neon sign bears the name and logo of the restaurant, which was inspired by a metaphorical perspective on the harsh weather conditions it takes as its namesake.
“In Vietnam, when the monsoons come, it pours and floods everywhere,” Nguyen said. “It reminds me of the struggle we had during the difficult times of COVID.”
Despite production delays, location choices and other setbacks, Vietnamese monsoon cuisine has weathered the storm and emerged triumphant from the figurative pandemic “monsoon”.
“Fine and casual Vietnamese cuisine adds a lot of diversity to the city,” Nguyen said, noting that of the many burgers, tacos and other types of restaurants Grand Rapids is crammed with, fine Vietnamese cuisine is rare.
One of Nguyen’s main goals with his restaurant is how every aspect of the experience comes together, and no element is below average. One of the main ways he demonstrated was to tear down the walls that blocked the kitchen from the dining room.
“I’ve always liked an open kitchen, as I was a private chef,” Nguyen said. “People love the experience of having a chef to talk to and see how the food is prepared.”
While Monsoon’s chefs aren’t within speaking distance of the tables, the open kitchen allows diners to see the food and the process, while smells waft over the hungry, anticipatory tables. In the future, Nguyen hopes to develop multi-course meals to be enjoyed at the chef’s table, a high table that faces the kitchen.
Also visible in the open kitchen is the charcoal grill, which provides the signature Monsoon flavor not found in many restaurants in the area.
“In Vietnam, we use a lot of charcoal in the food we prepare on the street or at home,” Nguyen said. Because authentic flavors are so important, he said the grill craze was worth it, no doubt. “It’s a real flavor, you can’t change that.
When developing the menu, Nguyen was inspired by the most popular dishes he found during his career as a private chef. By adding new favorites on a grand scale and creating new ones, he has streamlined the menu to include the most authentic, highest quality dishes.
Food isn’t the only thing Nguyen cares about.
“Good food is always there, but equally important is the atmosphere and the servers,” he said. Nguyen has received great reviews from guests about the experience, from the staff to the atmosphere and design, as well as the food.
Just a few months into business, the reviews are great, the staff is well trained and the food is tasty. Only the drinks are left. For now, the drinks menu consists of tasty mocktails, matcha and teas. Once the long-awaited liquor license is cleared, Nguyen said he plans to have a full cocktail menu designed by one of his talented staff members and draft beers from Vietnam.
The progression into fall and winter also presents new opportunities for Nguyen. He said they were already experimenting with new dishes for a seasonal winter menu, focusing on warmer profiles like braised meats, dumplings and other belly-warming dishes.
Provided there are no more figurative monsoons sweeping the country, Vietnamese monsoon cuisine is making its presence known in Grand Rapids, bringing a new cultural dining experience to the scene, and is destined to become a staple of the city center in no time.
Vietnamese monsoon food
55 Monroe Street Center