A “blank canvas.” This was Fred Hua’s first impression of the bright and airy space that would become Nhà Mình, his Vietnamese restaurant and coffee shop in Ridgewood, Queens. Like Fred’s bygone restaurant of the same name, which had closed several years earlier, Nhà Mình offers a gallery for exhibits by local artists, room for his own inventiveness in the kitchen and a meeting place where, in Fred’s words, he can “build community.”
The community in which Fred was born, in San Jose, California, is home to the largest overseas Vietnamese population in the world. Many of the conversations he heard there as a child, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were in Vietnamese – although as Fred tells us, he would always respond in English. That changed, at least for a time, when a teenaged Fred joined his father on a visit to Vietnam, not long after the country reopened to travel from the United States. Soon, he was immersed in the language and found himself in situations where he had to speak it, too.
On that trip, Fred was also impressed by the early morning preparation of dishes such as phở, Vietnam’s most famous noodle soup. Often meats and broth came from different animals, “not necessarily to be creative,” he tells us, but mainly “to avoid waste.” And although proteins were in much shorter supply than in bountiful California, dishes would get a lot of flavor from, say, water buffalo rather than beef, or from gamier and perhaps wild fowl rather than chicken. The cooking, Fred sums up, was “beautifully inconsistent.”
As a young man, however, Fred was not on a culinary career track. Back in the States, he worked as a barber, as a graphic designer for an apparel company and – by this time, he had moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn – as a shoe salesman. In New York, Fred recalls, he met a woman employed by a well-known Vietnamese restaurant whose owner was trying to staff several kitchens. Fred had little experience as a cook, but he’d grown up with Vietnamese food and knew how it was supposed to taste. When the owner offered to train him, Fred decided he would (so to speak) step into a new pair of shoes.
His on-the-job training as a line cook gave Fred the grounding to open a small restaurant of his own, aptly named Nhà Tôi (“My House”), in 2008. For five years, Nhà Tôi won over many fans in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, until construction issues next door forced it to close abruptly. Undeterred, Fred partnered with two friends, Jake Klotz and Jeremy Jones, to open a new restaurant in the adjoining neighborhood of East Williamsburg, in an area better known for warehouses than for apartment houses. They named it Nhà Mình (“Our House”).
That first Nhà Mình, like Fred’s current business of the same name, was a coffee shop, a restaurant and an art gallery. It was particularly famous for homemade sauces – perhaps ten at any one time, prepared in small batches, many from surplus ingredients. As his thrift-minded grandmother had taught him long ago, Fred tells us, “anything can be a sauce.” Wise use of leftovers had become a goal in itself, he continues, in concert with discovering and balancing the flavors of sauces to complement his food. The opportunity to create sauces in “playful” colors, which drew on Fred’s background in painting, was a happy by-product of the process.
Fred opened the current, transplanted Nhà Mình in 2021 with his partners Jake and Jeremy in the southern reaches of Ridgewood, where food catering to Spanish speakers, especially from Mexico and Ecuador, is widely available. Nhà Mình is one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in the immediate vicinity. And it’s the only one, to our knowledge, that exhibits a new art show every few months and that serves as a gateway to an indie performance music space: Trans-Pecos.
Both Nhà Mình and Trans-Pecos were lively during the opening of the exhibit “Sliced to Order,” for which old supermarket posters had been reimagined and reconfigured. In the front room – Nhà Mình proper, a high-ceilinged café that doubles as an art gallery – we admired the latest work of Brooklyn-based artist Anthony Castro. At the same time, of course, we kept a watchful eye on the latest appetizers that Fred and his crew carried out from the open kitchen. (The exhibit continues through August 7, 2022, but complimentary opening-night appetizers have come and gone.)
Scooting around the kitchen, we found a thumping stereo system — and one oversized artwork by Castro that would have overwhelmed the front room — in the indoor Trans-Pecos performance space. Beyond, we entered a backyard with more picnic tables than we could quickly count, where another DJ was on hand, playing at a neighbor-friendly volume.
The backyard is even more mellow during weekend brunch. There we’ve enjoyed Fred’s “birdcage phở,” which in its current incarnation features chicken but whose name suggests other possibilities, too.
In truth, however, we’re partial to the intimacy of the front room. That’s where we kick-started one day with the bánh xèo, a savory crepe that featured bacon, egg and cheese – “BEC” – evoking a classic NYC breakfast sandwich. On a different visit, we settled in with Nhà Mình’s classic version of a bánh mì, a sandwich that sports Vietnamese ham, chicken liver and spritely pickled vegetables.
Naturally, we dressed it with one of Fred’s homemade sauces, or maybe two – it’s hard to recall. We do remember that Fred mentioned his own greenhouse, at home, where he’s growing the likes of peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm and black basil. More flavors and more colors will be waiting for us soon – we’ll have to keep coming back for more.
Published on July 19, 2022