It’s been two years since chefs Anna and Anthony Nguyen moved back to Colorado from California with the idea to start their own restaurant. And after a series of pop-up previews that garnered a lot of attention from Denver foodies, the couple has finally found a location.
In April, the Nguyens plan to open Sap Sua, a Vietnamese restaurant, at 2550 E. Colfax Ave., where Route 40 Cafe has been operating since June 2020. The space is in the Lowenstein Theater building that also houses the Tattered Cover and the Sie FilmCenter.
Anthony is a first-generation Vietnamese American, and the menu will include some of his family recipes with a twist, such as a charred cabbage dish based on his mother’s recipe. It is served over egg yolk sauce and seasoned with fish sauce and Thai chiles with rice. Another dish is grilled pork shoulder steak with lemongrass marinade and tamarind glaze.
“First-generation Vietnamese Americans have such a wildly different experience from our parents, and what we want to bring to Denver is an interpretation of traditional dishes I grew up eating and fell in love with,” Anthony said.
“If you grew up Vietnamese, these dishes should click in your head. The flavors and integrity of the dishes are still there, but it’s reinterpreted and a little more composed. We’re taking our kitchen experience and combining it with some of my childhood memories,” he added.
The Nguyens met while they were both enrolled at the International Culinary Center (since closed) near San Jose, Calif., and got married in Denver’s City Park (just blocks from their new restaurant location.) After working in L.A. for six years at award-winning restaurants Animal and Osteria Mozza, the Nguyens moved to Longmont, Anna’s hometown, in early 2020.
During the pandemic, they rented a small kitchen in Longmont and sold traditional Vietnamese food for pick-up, quickly gathering a loyal following. They later moved to Denver and hosted a series of pop-ups at Sunday Vinyl, Pizzeria Locale in Boulder and Hickory and Ash in Broomfield.
Their address at the Lowenstein complex has seen a lot of turnover in the past few years. Before it was Route 40 Cafe, the space was home to the Good Son and Encore.
“We’ve been very strategic over the last year or so with Route 40 suffering from the pandemic, just about who we wanted to take over that space,” said Elsa Harberg, who redeveloped the theater with her father, longtime local landlord and developer Charlie Woolley.
Harberg said the pandemic hit Route 40 Cafe hard, but the Nguyens approached her and her father about opening Sap Sua in the space at the perfect time.
“We really thought that Anna and Anthony are such talented chefs, young and ambitious. I think they’re going to have a really long and successful run,” she said, adding that their concept is unusual and fun, which complements the kind of customers coming to the complex.
The Nguyens have hired architect Kevin Nguyen (unrelated) with Regular Architecture to design Sap Sua’s space, which they want to be intimate enough for a quick drink and bite during the week but also buzzy enough to appeal to a group of friends on a night out.
The restaurant will open first in the spring of 2023, and later they hope to add a bakery.
“We’re equal parts nervous and excited,” Anthony said. “You want to throw up and cry all at the same time. The one thing we miss the most is just mentoring younger cooks, being in charge of a group of people, and thinking about how we get them to work together to accomplish a simple goal. The deeper we got into opening this restaurant, the more we realized it’s not just about Anna and I. It’s about every single person from busser to server to dishwasher and how they can further their career when they leave Sap Sua.”
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