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By James Norton, The Heavy Table
Hai Truong, the chef/owner of Ngon Bistro in St. Paul, radiates the grounded intensity found in those who have arrived at their careers in a roundabout but ultimately purposeful manner. Truong trained in economics and worked as a stockbroker for five years before returning to the kitchen hearth at which he was raised.
“I couldn’t do the cube life anymore, it was sucking the creativity out of me,” he recalls. “I said I was done, and I didn’t have a plan. I just did odd jobs for about a year and a half until this fell into place.”
“This” is Ngon (pronounced “Nong”), one of the most singular restaurants in Minnesota. Ngon takes traditional Vietnamese flavors and recipes and imparts cosmopolitan twists that are understated – the direction of his food is dictated by seasonal produce and local meats, rather than an effort to chase the latest gastronomic buzzword.
Truong opened Ngon about five years ago in the same University Avenue building that once housed
Caravelle, his father’s first restaurant. Despite its traditional roots, Ngon’s farm-to-table approach to food is cutting edge, and its short but sweet all-Minnesota beer list that would make any serious brew fan salivate intensely.
“The local, sustainable food is just based on how we shopped at the farmers market – it came together really easily, it wasn’t a big deal,” says Truong. “We wanted to create an extension of what we do at home. And that’s true for the beer too – I was a homebrewer. I brewed all the time.”
Lest you think that this is going to turn into Truong bragging up his contest wins or “could’ve been the next Summit” mastery of brew – it isn’t.”
“There were tons of … explosions!” he says, laughing. “Geysers of Belgian blueberry flying up … because it’s been overfermented… ‘Well! There were a little more sugars in those blueberries than I thought there was.’ We lost literally half the beer that time – it shot two stories.”
“The beer list is an extension of my love for beer,” he adds. Truong spent time working at Great Waters Brewpub in downtown St. Paul, and that experience burnished his appreciation for the stuff. “I used to hang out with the brewers all the time,” he says. “That’s where the local Minnesota beer focus came from. There are plenty of other places that do everything else.”
While the beers at Ngon tend to be well-rounded and approachable, there’s nothing simple about the list, or Truong’s taste in brew. The restaurant was one of the first locally to sport a full-time in-house firkin of cask ale, and Truong makes an effort to support brewers who aren’t afraid to take risks.
“I really liked Jeff [Williamson, formerly of Flat Earth]‘s style,” Truong says. “He would go for broke. If you hated it, it was good that you hated it, because you tried it. He would just try things that were fun. A lot of other people play it too safe.”
It’s no coincidence that his other mainstay brewers – Surly, Lift Bridge, and Brau Brothers – are all as known for pushing the envelope as they are for their professional approach to the craft. For Truong, the beer list is a document that’s always in motion, and is shaped by his personal relationship with the men and women who make his beer.
“When I first tried CrossCut [a pale ale by Lift Bridge], that was absolutely my favorite beer,” Truong says. “It had a nice grapefruit finish, and there was this wonderful dryness right at the end. When they switched to [brewing at] Steven’s Point [from a previous co-brew with Flat Earth], the filtration took out all the grapefruit. It was too clean. The last batch, I asked: “Did you just make this maltier?!” And they were like [here Truong adopts a hangdog voice of resignation]” “Yeah.” I think it’s just a great relationship.”
Truong’s relationship-driven approach to beer manifests in his dining room in a physical manner. Artisan Atom Pechman of Form From Form created a unique tap system for Ngon – each tap is topped by a letter, and the letters together spell out “Local Beer.” It’s subtle, but magnetic once you’ve laid eyes upon it.
The clean, simple lines of Ngon’s bar and dining room echo the balance of the restaurant’s food and beer menus, a harmony that Truong has thoughtfully cultivated.
“With Vietnamese food, there’s always a combination of hot, and cold, and bitter – like vinegar,” says Truong, who says that pale style beers often best complement his food. “It presents a balance – one doesn’t take over the other, and there’s a clean finish. You don’t drink the beer and forget what you just ate, and you don’t eat the food and forget what you just drank.”
“One of the beers I really like is Flat Earth’s Northwest Passage,” says Truong. “The finish is very dry, there isn’t that sweetness to it. It’s excellent with pho.”
KILLER PAIRING #1: Anise-braised beef short ribs on rice with Brau Brothers Sheephead
The rich, absurdly tender, deeply spiced meat is the heart of this dish, but all the other pieces of this layer-cake of flavors do their part. Pickled vegetables on top impart a sour kick, a layer of arugula cools and cradles the meat, and warm, soft, delicate, rice adds an almost creamy note of comfort to the dish as a whole. “[Brau Brothers] Sheephead [ale] has a malty sweetness that goes very well with the strong, earthy, spiced meat,” says Truong. The beer underscores the luxuriousness of the meat without gilding the lily, but it’s also sufficiently well balanced and mellow that it doesn’t mask any of the interplay from the rice or veggies.
KILLER PAIRING #2: Scallops with mango chutney with Lift Bridge Farmgirl
Scallops are gentle, soft-spoken creatures that need diplomatic escorts – thus the sprouts and mango chutney that finish this perfect summer dish. Likewise, the beer that rides shotgun to this light (but oh-so-gently jungle funky) dish needs to be both easy-drinking and have a point of view. Lift Bridge Farm Girl Saison acts like rocket fuel for this dish, providing a sparkly wash of excitement and energy without crushing its understated flavors.
The Heavy Table is a daily Twin Cities-based magazine passionately telling the stories of food and drink — from roots to table — in the Upper Midwest.
James Norton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW.com. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).