It has only been five minutes since the closed sign on the front of the door has flipped to open at 11:00 AM and the energy is contagious. Five customers sit hunched over steaming bowls of pho and ramen, engrossed in a culinary experience that leaves them excited, nostalgic, surprised, and very full all at once.
I’m at Nudo House, the culinary brainchild of Qui Tran and Marie-Anne Velasco. Tran’s family came to St. Louis as refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s and opened the very first Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis, Mai Lee, which has since become hugely popular. Tran sits across from me in his bright and intimate new restaurant, Nudo House, which recently graced the cover of Food and Wine magazine. Tran’s infectious personality, undulling optimism, and sincerity come through in our conversation when he opens up about how his childhood working in Mai Lee transformed him, and how Nudo House came to be.
On how Mai Lee came to be: Mom was a good cook in Vietnam, and we came over here we didn’t speak any english, we didn’t have anything. She realized that because she knew how to cook it may be the only way we could make money because we didn’t know how to do anything else, so that’s really how Mai Lee got started. It was survival.
On why his family left Vietnam: Death. We’re refugees of war, it’s one of those things where we had no choice. It was either die there or die trying to find freedom, so we left right in 1978. There was no other option.
On making Mai Lee Vietnamese cuisine instead of Chinese: During that time a lot of Chinese food restaurants had already made their mark, so she thought maybe we could do Chinese food because that’s what she learned to do in the Chinese food restaurants she worked in. And so, she just made the decision to be like you know what, we are Vietnamese, let’s cook Vietnamese food. At that time it was hard because there weren’t that many ingredients so you were very limited to what you could get. So we started with only maybe six or eight items and we just expanded from there.
On the Mai Lee menu: Whatever Items we could find is how we made things. Now you can get anything anywhere at any given time, but in the 80s it was very difficult to get certain herbs and ingredients (necessary for Vietnamese cooking) so we had to make do with whatever we could find. We opened in ‘85 and I don’t think the next Vietnamese restaurant opened until ‘91 and then it became easier for other Vietnamese restaurants because we had already led the way on that. My mom is the true pioneer of Vietnamese food in St. Louis.
On Mai Lee’s big break: I decided to take the leap of faith - we had our big break in 2010 because that’s when I moved. We were in the old location for 25 years so in 2010 I moved the entire restaurant into a new location with a new vision.
On convincing his family to move the restaurant: I don’t know. They all looked at me like I was crazy so it was a lot pressure because it felt like if I screw this up, I just killed the entire family business. So there was a lot of pressure and sleepless nights and a lot of stress, I had never been this stressed. Besides the opening of Nudo House because I was literally taking my moms legacy and if it failed then years of my mother’s hard work and dedication was screwed up.
On his childhood: The biggest struggle in my childhood was that I would always complain about not having a life because I was was always working. I didn’t know what spring break was, I never had sleepovers, I only went to school and worked. I couldn’t play sports - I actually made junior varsity football team freshman year of high school and my parents were like nope, you gotta go work.
That was a huge struggle but looking back I wouldn’t change anything because it’s one of those things where it’s given me my gifts. It has taught me how to deal with people, it’s taught me humility. I mean I was working 12 hour shifts when I was 12 years old, and I have built so many great relationships that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t working at the restaurant.
On the St. Louis food scene: St. Louis has a great community here. The chefs here cook together, we work together, we do a lot of fundraising together. For me, I am always promoting the city and the food scene in St. Louis. Even the restaurant editor of Food and Wine magazine said that St. Louis is on everyone’s hot map. My philosophy has always been if people go out to eat and support independent restaurants it’s good for everybody because we’re creating a culture where people realize they don’t want to go to Applebees and instead want to try local restaurants. It means that we are creating a new culture around food.
On the Nudo House menu: Marie-Anne and I have traveled around the country for the last three years doing research. We went to little ramen shops and realized what we liked and didn’t like. We basically decided to limit the menu and do twelve things really well and execute that. Fortunately, we’ve been received very well in the last six months. Time Magazine picked up our Food and Wine article today. People were like, “what’s next? “Sexiest Man 2018?” I was like, “hardly!” For me, it’s more about St. Louis than it is for myself because collectively we have done this. Without the community doing good things, this would’ve never happened for me. It’s very special because on that cover it says comfort food. Our country is built on immigration, America is a huge melting pot. Being an American is an idea, it’s not what you look like, it’s not where you come from, it’s about you coming here because you want something better for your life and for your family. To have pho be on the cover of the American comfort food edition of Food and Wine is very special for me, it means so much more than just my accomplishment. It means pho is considered to be as American as apple pie, and it is!
On ramen: We could’ve opened years ago but we reached out to Chef Nakamura, who is one of the four Ramen Gods of Japan. Nakaumoro has worked with everyone including big, big names and I just begged him to come to St. Louis. The ramen me and Marianna made was good, but there was something missing. We learned a lot from Nakamuro because I brought him here to St. Louis and he worked with us for a full week and he helped hone our skills. He was impressed, he said we were doing cool things and just told us to try this, try that and we built a great relationship with him. He loved St. Louis, he loved the food, he loved Pappy’s Ribs, he said we were doing killer food. So after working with Nakamuro I said,“We’re ready now.”
On his role models: Obviously my parents - their hard work and relentless attitude mean the world to me. Second would have to be all of my restaurant friends, because I have learned a lot from my friend’s mistakes - you take the good things. It’s a tough business, it’s a high risk business, it has the hardest failure rate of any business. Sometimes you can be the most talented person but if you don’t work as hard as someone else than that’s not going to matter.
On words to live by: Compassion. Humanity. I try to give back as much as possible because it was hard for us growing up but people helped us along the way. So, when people reach out and ask if we can donate a dish or do a fundraiser I do. Understanding is also important. In my business I get all walks of life. If you walk in the kitchen, there is every gender, there’s straight, there’s gay, there’s black, there’s white, there’s latinx, there’s asians. Everybody. If we try to understand each other then that’s how relationships get forged.