Back in 2012, Khanh Nguyen entered the Dallas restaurant industry with only a one-month stint at a local pizzeria in high school under his belt. He opened Dalat, a Vietnamese restaurant focused on serving up steaming bowls of pho to the lunch and late-night crowds on Fitzhugh Avenue.
At the time, Fitzhugh Avenue wasn’t the bustling restaurant district that it is now. Dalat was one of only a few places to eat on the street. “We were kind of hanging there by ourselves for a long time there, meaning that anybody who came to see us had to intentionally think about coming to see us,” he says. After a while, a pizzeria finally opened across the street from Dalat, which made Nguyen hopeful about the neighborhood’s future.
Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the pizzeria wasn’t going to survive. “We did everything we could to send as much business as we could over there, but no matter how much we were trying to help them, they never looked really busy,” he says. “The quality of the product just wasn’t there. So I told my staff to keep an eye out to see if a ‘closed’ sign went up, because I decided I was going to take it over and try my hand at pizza.” The pizzeria closed a few months later, and Zalat was born.
In the years following the debut of that first spot on Fitzhugh Avenue, the chain has grown to 13 locations that are currently open in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and two more are in the works. Zalat is also planning to expand to Houston in the coming months, marking its first foray outside of the region. It’s growing into a pizza empire, and its wacky pies beloved by stoners and late-night hours that cater to the service crowd are a huge part of that success.
Despite that month of pizzeria experience, Nguyen admits that he didn’t know much about pizza when he opened Zalat. As the team prepared to open the restaurant in April 2015, Nguyen and his cooks experimented with various dough recipes for more than six months. They bought every different brand of mozzarella cheese and pepperoni on the market to find the perfect products for the pies.
Even more experimentation went into the specialty pies, resulting in a menu of kooky standards that range from the Pho Shizzle, a nod to Nguyen’s Vietnamese roots that’s topped with caramelized onions, hoisin sauce, and chicken, and the elote pie, which evokes a classic cup of Mexican street corn. And of course there is the Srirancha, the wildly popular Sriracha-ranch dip that’s become a Zalat staple.
All that experimentation paid off. Unlike most pizzerias, which mostly trade in classic pizza combos like pepperoni and cheese, Nguyen says that fewer than 2 percent of Zalat’s sales are from build-your-own pies. “We have been vigilant about never putting any pizza on the menu unless it’s absolutely perfect,” he says. “Which means that people trust our designs. Even if they don’t love a particular flavor combination, they know how well-designed it is. They appreciate that it’s good, and are willing to try something new.”
Nguyen describes himself as a night owl, which makes sense considering his occupation. Most restaurant workers see late hours, and once they’re done serving dinner to other people, they often find that there isn’t much out there for them to eat. That was especially true when Nguyen opened his first restaurants. “We had a few things, like fast food or diners like Cafe Brazil, but the options were just so limited,” he says. “We were adopted by the service industry pretty much immediately. They saw that we had good food and good service, and that they could come here after shutting down their restaurant instead of having to drive through the Jack in the Box line again.”
From the beginning, the pizzeria also targeted another crowd with a natural affinity for pizza: stoners. When Zalat first opened, it would deliver candy bars and cottonmouth-curing sodas alongside its pies until 4 a.m. on weekends. To celebrate April 20, widely recognized as the international day of the stoner, Zalat cooks up over-the-top pies like the Elvis in Vegas from 2017: a pizza topped with pulled pork marinated in Sunkist orange soda, edible sequins, and a “dime bag” full of crushed Cheetos intended as a garnish.
“We never shied away from being adopted by the partiers and the stoners,” Nguyen says. “Once March starts rolling around, everybody starts asking us what this year’s 4/20 pizza is going to be.”
As Zalat has grown, continuing to keep each location open until 4 a.m. has presented a challenge, and some close earlier. But Nguyen and his team are always pushing the locations that they’ve opened in suburban spots to stay open as late as financially viable. “As soon as we think a location can support being open later, we go later. We push as hard into the night as we can,” he says. “I would love it if every location could support staying open until 4 a.m.” Still, at many Zalat locations, the pizzeria is doing as much — or more — business during the late-night hours as it does during the dinner rush.
And as it’s grown from a small restaurant group to a bona fide chain with more than a dozen locations, Nguyen has made sure that Zalat maintains the level of quality and identity that made it a hit in the first place. As restaurants scale up, cutting corners becomes commonplace. Saving a couple bucks a pound on cheese adds up a lot faster when you’re talking about 15 restaurants instead of two, but Nguyen says those are the exact kinds of sacrifices that he isn’t willing to make.
“I think where I have an advantage is, not coming from this industry, I don’t have any traditional thinking about how these restaurants should work,” he says. “Nobody sets out to have a mediocre product, but it becomes mediocre one tiny change at a time as you seek growth and profitability. What you give up for consistency is really the top end of the flavor profile, and that’s just not something we’re willing to do.”