When Hai Phan was scouting locations for his restaurant, he came across the modest strip shopping center in Woodbury that would become home to Thanh Truc. He chose it, Phan says, because “there weren’t a lot of Asian restaurants in the area, and Woodbury was a booming community with lots of young families.”
Opened in 2004, Thanh Truc features healthy, flavorful Vietnamese food, along with Chinese and Thai-inspired dishes, in a modern, serene dining room recently re-designed by Quinn Hutson of CNH Architects. The décor is tranquil and inviting, with taupe-colored walls and lots of natural light from a full wall of windows. The L-shaped dining room’s couple dozen tables are neatly arranged with lots of space between them, making the restaurant feel large and open and small and intimate. Soothing classical music plays softly in the background. At night, soft light emanates from the simple white lanterns hung from the ceiling and the elegant silver wall sconces that overlook the room. “We do a lot of takeout, but the dining experience is very important,” Phan says. “We are big-time customer-focused.”
The food is held to equally high standards, with everything from the spring rolls to the pho broth prepared from scratch in the restaurant’s kitchen every day. While it may be labor-intensive, the results are well worth the work. “We grind the pork for the egg rolls; every ingredient is freshly chopped and freshly rolled,” Phan says. “When people come here, they expect the freshest, most well-made food. When they taste it, they see our vision, our passion.”
Vietnamese cuisine is traditionally built around fresh veggies, rice noodles and lean proteins that are steamed or stir-fried, so there is far less grease and red meat to rely on for flavor. Instead, Phan uses house-made chicken broth in place of oil in most of their dishes, which makes for not only a healthier meal but also a distinctive clean, mild taste that diners can’t seem to get enough of.
Even where the menu expands into Asian-restaurant staples such as egg fu yung, lo mein and pad Thai, the focus on quality and authenticity remains strong. “We’ve modified a bit to American tastes, but Vietnamese food is already a mix, influenced by the Chinese and the French,” Phan says. The pad Thai, Phan points out, was developed from a close Thai friend’s family recipe. “We follow tradition,” he says. “We don’t use pre-made sauces, and even the spice blends for the soups are made in our kitchen.”
Because everything at Thanh Truc is made-to-order, heat and spice levels can be tailored to each diner’s palate, and customers are encouraged to customize dishes to their liking. One of their keys to success, Phan says, is dedication to customer satisfaction. “We try to get everything perfect to attract and bring back customers: consistent quality, good portions, very affordable pricing,” Phan says. “The other day a lady said to me, ‘That was the best meal of my life.’ For us, the most rewarding part is seeing a customer satisfied and happy.”
Though it may seem that Thanh Truc’s winning combination of quality food and exceptional service destined the family business for success from the start, Phan put in plenty of long hours and had a few sleepless nights when they first opened. “It was a challenge the first few years; I had the passion for it, but it was risky,” Phan says. When you’re trying to get a small restaurant off the ground, you’re “the first to come in, the last to leave, and you do everything from wait tables to cook,” he says.
“It’s a big risk to try and make your dream come true,” Phan says. “It was very slow at first, but word of mouth expanded our customer base, and we’ve had strong support from Woodbury. People want us to stay and be a success.”
When Phan came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1981, he had no plans to become a restaurateur. Phan had a tech background and worked as an engineer up until the early-2000s when he felt the need to do something different. He envisioned a place to connect people with Vietnamese culture, and food was a natural choice.
“Food is so central to culture and connecting with people,” Phan says. He chose to keep the restaurant small and family-run because, as he notes, “it gives you room to develop the food and passion; you’re not bound by corporate rules.”
Thirteen years in, Thanh Truc is a thriving part of the local community, and Phan credits their success to the continued support of his dedicated customers. The restaurant business can be stressful, Phan says, but getting to be a part of people’s lives is incredibly rewarding. “We see families who had kids that used to sit in high chairs, and now they’re growing up and starting college, and we’re part of it, in a way,” he says. His and his wife’s two daughters recently left for school after working in the restaurant since they were 14, and he is confident that the experience gave them an appreciation for service to others and respect for the hard work necessary to make a living in the real world.
Even in difficult times, Thanh Truc remains true to its vision. During the recession, prices remained low to keep the food accessible, and even in bad weather the doors remain open. When new townhouses went up across the street from Thanh Truc a few years ago, “people would walk over to order food and carry takeout home in a snowstorm,” Phan recalls. “Experiences like that keep you going, even on a stormy day.”
In the Kitchen
As interest in healthier eating and Eastern flavors has grown, so has the demand for cooking tools and classes related to Asian cuisine at Sur La Table in Woodbury. Popular classes on noodle-making, Thai favorites and Vietnamese cooking give participants a chance to recreate their favorite restaurant meal with traditional ingredients and expertise supplied by resident chef Mary Jo Rasmussen. “It’s easy to do at home once you have a few key ingredients and skills,” she says.
For the home chef, Rasmussen recommends investing in a few crucial pieces of equipment, such as a good carbon-steel wok and some high-quality cutlery from Miyabi or Shun. “These knives are totally different from Western knives,” Rasmussen says. “They’re made from a different type of steel, with a sharper edge and smaller bevel that makes them great for vegetable prep work.”
For a light, lively appetizer, Rasmussen recommends this sample recipe from a recent class:
Vietnamese Summer Rolls
2 heads Boston lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed and dried
3 medium carrots, peeled
4 green onions, trimmed
1 red bell pepper
16 rice paper wrappers
32 fresh mint leaves
32 small sprigs cilantro
Remove the ribs from the center of the lettuce leaves and discard. Set the lettuce aside. Cut the carrots, onions and red bell pepper into 4-inch long slices resembling matchsticks.
To prepare rolls: Dip a rice paper into a bowl of water until soft and pliable, about 30 seconds; shake off excess water and place onto a clean, smooth surface. Stack several lettuce leaves on the lower third of the rice paper. Top with a few carrot, onion and red bell pepper matchsticks followed by two mint leaves and two cilantro sprigs. Fold the bottom of the rice paper up over the veggies. Fold in the sides and then roll up. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. To serve: Arrange the rolls on a platter and serve immediately, with peanut sauce.
Makes four servings.