Carol Nguyễn, the rosy-cheeked, petite powerhouse owner of Ngon Vietnamese Kitchen, prepped for her upcoming holiday by sending off her staff and celebrating them for their service with a traditional Com Ga Ha Noi (jasmine rice infused with chicken broth). The dish brings textures of glutinous rice made golden by turmeric. It’s an auspicious meal for Tết Nguyên Đán (Tết, for short), the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
This year, Nguyễn won’t be joining the Lower Greenville restaurant’s annual Tết revelry. She’s flying back to Vietnam to spend time with and honor her 87-year-old mother. The restaurant is her mother’s namesake — Ngon also means “delicious,” depending on the specific inflection in pronunciation of the word. With or without Nguyễn, each year’s Lunar New Year celebration at Ngon Kitchen is precisely done to her instructions, which are inspired by the flavors of her family memories with an added Dallas twang.
Tết, which is a multi-day celebration lasting up to a week in Vietnam and across the Vietnamese American diaspora, is about coming together and continuing the legacy of family. Nguyễn celebrates her biological family and that fostered by affinity in friendship and work. “We call it ‘Lunar New Year’. It is not just only [for the] Chinese... So for us, we are Vietnamese. And we are proud to be,” stresses Ngon Kitchen’s shift manager, Tâm Nguyễn, who is no relation to Carol.
The preparations for the restaurant’s Tết event, which is scheduled for Sunday, February 11, were well underway when Eater Dallas spoke with the team in early January.
Tết marks the shift of the seasons, coming out of the slumber of the cooler winter months and turning a new page into the fresh start of springtime. “Clean, clean, clean!” Nguyễn stresses. Every nook and cranny of the restaurant, from the outdoor patio to the back of the kitchen, will be scrubbed extra clean. “I’m starting fresh, so beginning the new year with new stuff, too,” shares Tâm.
Carol is giving every member of her staff a new set of Áo dài, the traditional long tunic, to be worn with fresh haircuts on February 11. Guests donning Áo dàis on the day will receive a red envelope to keep or to be fed to the dancing lion — a traditional dance of two persons in a lion costume that will roam around the restaurant to the beat of drums and cymbals, driving away negative energies and blessing guests with good fortune — to continue the cycle of luck.
Cleanliness in the home, in mind, emotions, and speech, and body is a key feature of Tết. “No drama for three days; only kind words! And after that, we can do whatever we want,” Nguyễn says, chuckling. “I grew up in a superstitious family, because my grandma, she’s a very traditional lady.” Nguyễn’s grandmother passed down a cleansing bath ritual wherein a mixture of pomelo rinds, cilantro seeds, and lime leaves is added to hot water. When Carol had children of her own, that same recipe was handed down and is practiced during every Tết.
Ngon Kitchen will be decorated in the spring colors of Tết. For Vietnamese from the north, like Nguyễn and Tâm, the flower of the season is the hoa đào, pink peach blossoms. South Vietnamese use the more familiar hoa mai of yellow apricot blossoms. Pink, along with yellow and red, symbolizes luck and abundance. So, Ngon’s the special drink for Tết, the Tipsy Dragon, was developed to align with this year’s wooden dragon zodiac. It is also rich in red hues from the juice of red dragon fruit and pineapple and infused with the fragrance and flavor of a pandan leaf — plus a splash of rum and Rumchata for a sweet, cinnamon kick.
Past celebrations at the restaurant have included Nguyễn’s Tết family dishes, such as the bún thang, a chicken rice noodle soup topped with a rainbow of proteins and vegetables (sausage, egg, chicken, crispy fried shallots and garlic, and sweet and sour pickled kohlrabi bulbs and carrots), and bánh chưng chien (banana leaf wrapped, sticky rice packets filled with pork belly and mashed mung beans). These touchstones live on in the signature bún chả Ha Noi, which takes a piece of grilled pork belly and a sliver of the cha (seasoned pork meatball) to be dipped in the nước chấm (sweet, sour, and salty fish sauce) for abundance, then a few strands of the bouncy vermicelli rice noodles for long life, topped on a leaf of lettuce and herbs then wrapped and eaten for a fresh start this new year.