Owning a restaurant was a dream that Ky Nguyen, 38, couldn’t shake. After earning a degree in economics from Tufts, working at an Internet startup, and doing a stint at a hedge fund, Nguyen took a restaurant job — as a busboy. Less than 10 years later, he owns three Boston restaurants. His latest venture is Sa Pa Modern Vietnamese in Cleveland Circle, open in May.
Don’t be fooled by the simplified menu, which is divided into sandwiches, noodle soups, burritos (whole wheat tortillas wrapped with Asian fillings), and bowls, both at the original Downtown Crossing location, and at the new spot in Brighton. It’s designed to be user-friendly when you order. But the essentials are here, offering a fresh, original spin on traditional dishes. Nguyen is tuned into flavors his customers crave.
The banh mi sandwich ($6.54) is a riff on the classic. A toasty baguette arrives in a wax paper sleeve, stuffed with warm shreds of barbecued pulled pork, cilantro, and ribbons of carrot and daikon. Halved red grapes provide a juicy pop of sweetness, while creamy walnut-mushroom pate offers an unexpected hit of umami. This is nothing like traditional banh mi; and, according to Nguyen, only partly inspired by his own mom. “The menu is a mix between my mom’s recipes and those of Dana Love,” Nguyen says, referring to the executive chef at Kingston Station, the Downtown Crossing bistro that Nguyen also owns.
“In Vietnam, there’s not a lot of refrigeration, so things have to be made fresh out of necessity,” he says. That emphasis on fresh, meticulous preparation comes through most of the time – with only a hiccup or two.
One evening in Brighton, fresh rolls ($3.74 for 3) are a little too cold, making the rice paper wrapper less pliable. Avocado (one of Sa Pa’s nontraditional fillings) is brown. In another dish, cilantro hasn’t been washed free of all its grit.
Missteps are forgotten when pho noodle soup ($6.54) arrives. The springy, tender rice noodles are perfectly cooked, and the piping hot, mahogany-hued broth makes the dish. Nguyen adds both beef and chicken bones to the pot along with fish sauce, star anise, and cloves. He simmers the stock overnight. With our choice of meat (we choose the flavorful slow-braised beef) plus basil and an expertly poached egg (47 cents extra), we devour this dish, even in the early summer heat.
All of the proteins on offer –including lemongrass shrimp and marinated tofu — can be tucked into any dish: a sandwich, soup, as a filling for a burrito ($7.48) or on top of a bowl of vermicelli noodles or rice (each $9.35). Try mildly seasoned ginger-lime chicken over a bowl of thread-thin rice noodles, dress it with a tangy Asian fish sauce that’s provided on the side, and enjoy the cool, crunchy toppings of cucumber, cilantro, and toasted peanuts.
A generous side of housemade kimchi ($2.80) is spiked with fresh ginger and packs substantial heat. Cool down with a refreshing chile mint limeade ($2.80) with the right balance of sweet and tart, plus a gentle buzz from Thai bird chiles.
Nguyen took the name Sa Pa, which is a town in northern Vietnam, for practical reasons. “It’s ethnic and pronounceable,” he says. He and his family, who are featured in vintage photographs taken by his father, are from southern Vietnam. His satisfied customers — financial workers downtown, flirty hipsters, and stroller-pushing parents in Cleveland Circle — don’t seem to care what the place is called. They seem thrilled that Nguyen chose restaurants over hedge funds.