Saigon Social and The New York Times Effect
How a restaurant that struggled through the pandemic is now thriving
Helen Nguyen, chef-owner of Saigon Social, talked to us about the New York Times effect on her Lower East Side restaurant after Gary He chronicled her struggle to keep the restaurant alive across three months of the pandemic. Today, she’s finally seeing a rebound, has opened for full-service dining, and has extended hours.
He reports that Saigon Social was originally set to open in March 2020: too late to be eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program and too early to have developed a loyal clientele. The result was limbo. “For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what the future of the restaurant would be,” she says. Nguyen spent many nights alone, sleeping in the restaurant, pivoting to another model that included takeout and catering. In addition, she helped the Lower East Side community as she herself struggled.
Saigon Social is the first restaurant for the chef — originally from Seattle — who attended the Institute of Culinary Education, worked for Daniel Boulud, participated in the Bocuse d’Or, and hosted pop-ups at Nom Wah, Bistrot Leo, and elsewhere. Pre-pandemic, she saw the opportunity to introduce New Yorkers to regional Vietnamese dishes that display more fish sauce, caramelization, and savory notes. She cites her mother’s go-to braises like catfish.
“What really sets it apart is how you caramelize and cook the fish,” Nguyen told us earlier in the pandemic. With East-Coast style a bit lighter and more subtle, she leans toward a bolder, thicker braise. “It's sticky and it's almost like a gravy,” she says. Today, you’ll also find dishes like a satisfying oxtail fried rice; a banh mi burger that “tastes just like the sandwich,” and garlic noodles with shrimp.
Since the Times piece ran, there have been a lot of new customers who have visited with a copy of the article in hand. “People from out of town added a stop to their itinerary and went out of their way to visit,” she says. The restaurant just opened for full-service dining in mid-March — two full years after it was supposed to — and shortly after, Nguyen extended her hours to seven days a week. That means maintaining a staff of around 17 employees — five or six kitchen staff — for a 44-seat restaurant.
She’s come a long way from working as a lone owner-employee in the early pandemic. Now, “to be able to provide hours so [staff] can support families and their financial goals,” she says she’s most proud of “continuing to support the team.”
Of her food, she notes Saigon Social isn’t a traditional Vietnamese restaurant, citing the French influences of Daniel Boulud and her experience in other kitchens before opening her own place. Former Boulud colleagues also helped her during the pandemic stretch. “Ninety-five percent of them were unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine,” she says, but when they cooked together during the pandemic, “even if they didn’t understand flavor, they’d suggest techniques and more efficient ways of doing things that really helped.”
Nguyen’s decision to open the restaurant eventually brought her closer to her family. “When my mom first found out [she planned on opening her own restaurant], she was not supportive of it,” she says. But as time passed, she came around. Of her dishes, her mother, “encouraged me to call my aunts and cousins” in Central Vietnam. “They’d say, ‘Wash the clams this way,’ or, ‘This is great, but we think you should do these things instead.’ I talked to my family more over the pandemic than over the last 20 years combined!” she says.
Though crystalizing her vision for Saigon Social “took longer than anticipated,” she says she’s excited to finally have a chance to grow — and eventually expand.