Searching for some comfort food in Alabama has put me in the path of some neat people. We met Cathy, Samantha and Brandon, (who read Verse 16 for us), at a Vietnamese restaurant down in southern Alabama. This time around, on yet another food hunt, we met Han Vu and Dang Nguyen at a restaurant up in northern Alabama. Pierre, one of the photographers, and I were in Huntsville filming another verse for this project and were looking, yet again, for some Vietnamese nourishment when we came across a small, homey restaurant -- Viet Cuisine.
Han and Dang are the owners of Viet Cuisine. We learned they had been students at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where they worked together at a sandwich shop -- Han as a waitress and Dang as a cook.
Once they graduated and had their degrees (Han's in Corporate Finance and Dang's in Electrical Engineering), they decided that they just weren't bankers or engineers. They were foodies who loved food and cooking and serving people.
The sandwich shop where they were working was up for sale. They bought it, kept it for a few years, then sold it. In 2014 they opened Viet Cuisine. (In 2016, they moved the restaurant from where we filmed them to a different, bigger location in Huntsville.)
"We don't really care about money when we first opened," Dang says. "It was about the love."
They offer that same message to their seven-year-old daughter Eva. Han and Dang don't expect her to be a banker or a doctor or a lawyer. She just needs to find her passion and follow it. Right now Eva's passion is baking.
When she grows up, she wants to open her own cupcake shop, one that is close enough to walk to Viet Cuisine. She's already figured out her menu: "cupcakes, cakes, and green tea cake."
"We have a lot of customers coming because of her," Han says. "They come in to play with her." Eva agrees. "I have a lot of friends. And they all come into the restaurant! And we have a BIG TV"
Han says the TV is always set to the Food Channel. "It makes customers hungry," she says, "And they learn about food."
Customers, of course, also come for the food. Dang says he's somewhat of a perfectionist in the kitchen. "I hate a busy day," Dang says. "Not because I don't like customers, I love my customers. But I want the food to come out perfect!"
Most days are busy. Dang attributes some of the restaurant's popularity to its location: Alabama. "Alabama, I think it's a place where they love to try new things," he says. He feels lucky the restaurant is where it is.
Han says she focuses on creating a space where their customers can feel relaxed and happy, like they're eating a meal at their family's or friends' house. "They will enjoy looking around, and they can walk around," Han says. "I want to make sure it's special and different than other Vietnamese [restaurants]. When you walk in my restaurant, you will see half Asian style, half American style."
Han says sometimes when couples come in, they want a romantic dinner, so she's placed pots of lavender throughout the restaurant. The smell of lavender is supposed to make you more relaxed and happy.
When asked to name the best compliment a customer has ever given her, Han immediately answers: "My restroom is the cleanest public restroom they've ever seen. For me, if it’s not clean and I went to a restaurant, I would walk away."
Sometimes Dang will walk out of the kitchen to the dining room and watch customers enjoying themselves -- eating and smiling and laughing -- and he knows he and his wife have done something right. They've given people a place where they can feel comfortable and connected. For that, they are continually repaid with loyalty.
"Sometimes customers, they forget their wallet or the machine is down," Dang says. "I just ask, 'Well did you enjoy your meal today?' And if they say, 'yes,' I am happy because they will come back. And that's all we want to see at the end of the day."
By Jennifer Crandall, as told to writer Liz Hildreth