Saigon Social chef-owner Helen Nguyen (center), with her business partner, Jennifer Saesue (left), who also owns Fish Cheeks, and chef Emily Yuen, formerly of Bessou. Photo by Ben Hon

Chef FeaturesNew York

For Saigon Social’s Helen Nguyen, Community Is Everything

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As the plane taxied onto the JFK tarmac at around 7:45 a.m. on Monday, May 2, Helen Nguyen turned on her phone, only to find a dozen alarming voicemails, missed calls, and text messages. There had been a fire at Saigon Social, the New York City restaurant she first opened in March 2020.

Timing has always seemed to be a challenge for Nguyen. She opened Saigon Social on the Lower East Side just two days ahead of the city-wide shutdown. For the next two years, she switched business models multiple times. She lost, hired, and trained staff, some of whom contracted COVID-19. She trekked through the boroughs for ingredients that were in short supply. She closed and reopened various sections of the restaurant. She survived being followed by a stranger after another late night at the restaurant during a spate of anti-Asian violence. Exhausted to the bones, yet eager to get her first restaurant back on track, she finally reopened Saigon Social for indoor dining in March 2022. And now this.

“I had a mini panic attack on the plane,” Nguyen says. “Did anyone get hurt? What was the damage? I was having a lot of anxiety, trying to envision what was going on.”

Making her way through the sludge of rush-hour traffic, she finally arrived at the restaurant around 9:30 a.m. All of the gates were broken. The glass windows and doors that wrapped around the corner of Orchard and Stanton streets were shattered by the fire department’s efforts to extinguish the blaze. The electrical wiring and plumbing had been damaged in the kitchen, where the fire had started. But nobody in her Saigon Social family was hurt, and so her mind eased a bit.

“How can I fix this?” she thought.

Nguyen installed wooden slats in place of the broken doors and windows to secure the space, and yet again, she closed up shop. As she navigated insurance claims, damage assessments, and repairs in the days that followed, the check-in calls and messages never ceased.

She wasn’t alone. Her community, as widespread and multifaceted as it is — including her extended restaurant industry family; her cadre of high-profile regulars; and the neighborhood elders whom she cooked meals for regularly — they all showed up for her, just as she’s been there for them. And it’s kept her going.

It started when she was six years old. After her immigrant parents separated, her family came to rely on nonprofits and food banks. “I understand firsthand how incredibly challenging and lonely it could be growing up with those kinds of insecurities and challenges,” Nguyen says. To give back, she cooked hundreds of plates for the local homeless at her church’s community kitchen twice a week — her first experience with large-format cooking — and on the weekends, she and her sister volunteered at the food bank that used to host their family.

Nguyen wasn’t always a chef. In high school, she started supporting her mom with income from high-paying jobs that included a five-year stint in banking and subsequently, a decade-long career in real estate that began in 2007, just a year before the market crash.

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All along, however, her real passion was to become a chef. It wasn’t until her younger sister found job stability, and Nguyen amassed enough earnings to pay off some of her family’s mortgage and home insurance, that she finally decided to pursue her dreams. From 2016 to 2017, Nguyen embarked on weekly red-eye flights between Seattle and New York, attending the Institute of Culinary Education while still working as a real estate agent.

Eventually, she decided to make her move to New York permanent. She got a job in Daniel Boulud’s kitchen, cooking for his Feast and Fêtes catering team for three years. And in 2018, she founded Saigon Social as a roving pop-up where she could put her own spin on Vietnamese comfort food, with a heavier hand on fish sauce and caramelization than what most New York diners were used to. With every restaurant collaboration – from Nom Wah to Bistrot Leo – Saigon Social racked up fans clamoring for her savory oxtail fried rice, buttery garlic noodles with shrimp, and her juicy banh mi burger.

That risk paid off, and in 2020, she expanded Saigon Social into her first brick-and-mortar restaurant. It’s a space that allows Nguyen to express herself freely, both in the kitchen and through the decor. A self-professed Star Wars fanatic, Nguyen installed a floor-to-ceiling Star Wars-themed mural in the basement featuring a baby Yoda standing next to a bowl of pho, and a Wookiee in a pink cape brandishing a bunch of carrots.

A Closer Look at Saigon Social's Menu

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Saigon Social is one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in New York (Van Da is another) to serve banh beo, or steamed rice cakes, like this. Nguyen's feature shrimp, mung bean, scallion, fried pork fat, and crispy shallots.

Photo courtesy of Saigon Social

Banh tet chien, another dish that's relatively hard to find in New York, is also available at Saigon Social. Nguyen stuffs hers with pork belly and mung bean and then steams the sticky rice in a banana leaf, and then deep fries them.

Photo courtesy of Saigon Social

One of Nguyen's earliest signature dishes was this banh mi burger, which features a patty made with Pat LaFrieda dry-aged ribeye and short rib, pork pate, Maggi gravy, and shoestring fries on a brioche bun.

Photo courtesy of Saigon Social

Nguyen is also known for her soups, like this bun rieu made with crab and pork meatballs, mortadella, shrimp, tofu, vermicelli, and a pork and chicken broth.

Photo courtesy of Saigon Social

Nguyen's take on an iconic dish from Vietnam, cha ca la vong, places the fish on a sizzling hot platter.

Photo courtesy of Saigon Social

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It’s that sense of humor, along with Nguyen’s unwavering commitment to the community, and her resilience, that has endeared her to so many.

Golden Diner chef-owner Samuel Yoo, who enlisted Nguyen as part of his Good Hood Deal to help out local Chinatown and Lower East Side restaurants early on in the pandemic, frequents her restaurant regularly. He loves the pho and bún riêu (crab and tomato noodle soup), saying “[they’re] more unctuous and more flavorful” than any others he’s had. “Whatever she’s doing she’s got the technique down, to extract those flavors,” he says. This year, Nguyen was named a semifinalist for best chef in New York state by the James Beard Foundation.

Another fan of Nguyen’s cooking and community efforts is fashion designer Philip Lim. Together with Hannah Pham, food blogger and wife of comedian Ronnie Chieng, he started a GoFundMe for Nguyen that raised more than $79,000 to help her with labor costs and repairs in the aftermath of the fire.

“They’re depending on me,” Nguyen says of her 17-person restaurant staff. “I can’t shut down. I can’t give up because we’ve now built an extensive family that very much relies on the restaurant as a means of income.”

Even after the fire, and while her restaurant was closed, Nguyen never stopped completing her weekly deliveries of more than 300 donated meals for Heart of Dinner and Feed Forward — two organizations that feed at-need New Yorkers, particularly Asian American elders. She says she does it because she doesn’t want to disappoint the local nai-nais and yeh-yehs, many of whom she’s come to know personally.

The restaurant’s damaged windows and pipes are “replaceable,” but “the real issue of food insecurity doesn’t go away for them,” Nguyen explains. “They put things into a lot more perspective.”

The day after the fire, Nguyen found herself cooking alongside Feed Forward founder Winston Chiu at his Bonbite commissary kitchen at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, making meals for her Wednesday Heart of Dinner meal delivery.

It’s in the kitchen where Nguyen often finds solace in the early mornings and late nights, as life fades outside, and the city goes quiet. With the slick sounds of Vietnamese rapper Binz taking over, she skims her slowly simmering beef bone stock and the air thickens with a beefy redolence. “It’s very meditative and kind of like my own form of therapy,” she says.

I’ve seen her down and out so many times, but I’ve never seen her flustered. I envy her, that I am not as strong as her. — Chintan Pandya, chef-owner, Dhamaka

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In just one month after the fire, on June 1, Saigon Social reopened its doors, first for a luncheon where Nguyen hosted seniors from the BRC Senior Center in Chinatown, followed by a dinner with food catered by her friends from Fish Cheeks, 886, Golden Diner, and Double Chicken Please.

For the rest of the month, other acclaimed restaurateurs and chefs are collaborating with Nguyen for a special Monday night dinner series. The first one took place on June 6, in collaboration with chef Chintan Pandya, of Dhamaka, Adda, and Rowdy Rooster, who says he jumped at the chance to partner with Nguyen after she reached out to him on May 11, just a little over a week after the fire. He says he’s in awe of her chutzpah.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” he exclaims. “I think I would have been in a state of shock or something for at least a month or so. I’ve seen her down and out so many times, but I’ve never seen her flustered. I envy her, that I am not as strong as her, and that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to do this with her.”

That night drew a packed house that included chefs Thomas Keller (Per Se, The French Laundry) and Daniel Boulud. Nguyen posed for photos in between cooking, plating, and chatting up guests. “She even cleared plates!” says Pandya. “She literally was doing everything that night — and under so much pressure.”

For this past Monday’s collaboration on June 13, Nguyen linked up with Jihan Lee and Taka Sakeada of Nami Nori, together with Feed Forward’s Winston Chiu. On June 20, Win Son’s Trigg Brown, Ho Foods’ Rich Ho, and Bonnie’s Calvin Eng will stop by. And on June 27, Christine Lau, previously of Kimika, and Emily Yuen, formerly from Bessou, will close out the series.

These collaborations, and the tremendous outpouring of respect and support Nguyen has received, are emblematic of something Nguyen has always known and practiced. It’s the idea that we’re stronger, together.

 

Saigon Social is open daily for dinner beginning at 5 p.m.

 

Caroline Shin is a food journalist, and founder of the Cooking with Granny video and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Watch her award-winning show on YouTube, and follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.