Tan and Marya Chuong love Vietnamese food but they don’t always love how it’s made and sold in the United States.
For Tan, who was born in Vietnam, the ingredients used at local Vietnamese restaurants aren’t always healthful, and the decor can be cluttered and tacky. And for American-born Marya, who was introduced to the cuisine by her husband 17 years ago, Vietnamese restaurants and their long, often hard-to-decipher menus can be intimidating.
So in March, the Tierrasanta couple opened Cay Bistro, a quick-service restaurant in San Marcos that simplifies, localizes and modernizes traditional Vietnamese cuisine.
The 20-seat restaurant on Nordahl Road sells just a handful of dishes that can be customized, Chipotle-style, with a choice of protein and toppings. The decor is ultra-modern with clean lines; recipes include California ingredients like jalapeno peppers, avocado slices and fresh, local herbs; and first-timers can easily follow the restaurant’s step-by-step ordering instructions and “Vietnamese food 101" tutorials online.
Cay Bistro is the second restaurant for the Chuongs, who got into the food business six years ago when they purchased the San Marcos Deli. Before that, they were working in very different fields.
Tan, 40, immigrated with his Chinese/Vietnamese family to San Diego in 1979 when he was 3 years old. In college, he earned a degree in biochemistry and worked in the scientific field for many years.
Marya, 37, has a degree in economics and business management and has worked in the data management, sales and website development.
In 2011, they decided to start their own business, and buying an existing delicatessen seemed an easy way to begin.
“We didn’t have any prior background in food but it was something we could do together,” Marya said.
Because of their corporate backgrounds, the Chuongs tried to avoid the pitfalls that often occur in a mom-and-pop business. They set up work procedures, staff training, consistent food preparation techniques and expanded the catering operation.
The deli flourished, and a few years ago they decided to open a second location. But when they visited shopping centers around San Marcos, they realized that most of them already had a sandwich shop.
“The market was saturated, so we went back to the drawing board and started looking for a concept that could be our niche. That’s when we looked at Vietnamese food,” she said.
Everything at Cay Bistro was developed by the Chuongs, from the recipes to the logos and website to the restaurant’s interior design. Their goal was to deliver the vibrant flavors of Vietnamese cuisine in a fresh, modern and approachable way.
“Sometimes when you go into these restaurants, you can’t read the menu, there’s a lot of items and the service can be abrupt,” she said. “We wanted to create something more inviting and friendly for people who’ve never experienced Vietnamese food.”
They settled on just a handful of traditional dishes: banh mi sandwiches, pho noodle soups, noodle bowls, rice plates and egg and spring rolls. The all-English menu offers meat options that include char-grilled steak, glazed pork belly, honey-glazed tofu, caramelized shrimp and more. Prices range from $7 to $8.50.
All items are made fresh, with no additives or MSG, which gave Tan such bad headaches that he gave up visiting Vietnamese restaurants several years ago. The name Cay (pronounced like “pie”) is a Vietnamese root word for herbs and plants and also means spicy or flavorful.
The restaurant also serve Asian drinks like Thai iced tea with boba, Vietnamese iced coffee and coconut milk served with a straw in a fresh young coconut.
Since opening in mid-March, Cay Bistro has been a hit with the over-60 crowd in the seniors apartment complex across the street. The top-selling dish so far has been rice noodle bowl, a cold mixed green salad topped with rice vermicelli noodles, crushed peanuts and a housemade Vietnamese vinaigrette dressing.
The Chuongs said they’re working on procedures to ensure consistency, and once they feel confident in their business model, they hope to open several more Cay Bistros around San Diego.
“We think we’ve really hit a chord with our customers,” she said. “It’s simple food, it’s healthy and it’s approachable.”
Cay Bistro - Fresh Vietnamese Cuisine
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
Where: Nordahl Marketplace, Suite 118, 740 Nordahl Road, San Marcos.