When Chef Tuan Nguyen starts speaking, his New York accent shines. A native of upstate New York, he moved to Charlotte two years ago to expand his culinary turf. Currently you can find him at CO, a new pan-Asian eatery in Park Road Shopping Center. This is the fourth CO location (others reside in more touristy destinations like Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia) and it's something to be proud of. The broth noodle bowls are deep and bursting with flavor, while the atmosphere is modern chic with a special touch protruding from the bar, which serves fruit-infused sake. But Nguyen's favorite part of the restaurant is the kitchen. He says it's the most impressive one he's worked in so far. A Vietnamese-American, Nguyen, 30, holds many of the restaurant's Vietnamese leanings close to his heart. They conjure up nostalgia for his mother's home cooking.
Prior to his new home at CO, Nguyen worked as executive chef at Treehouse Whiskey & Fork and as sous chef at Baku in Charlotte. During his time in New York, his culinary specialty was Italian food. The shift from marinara to miso has been a transition for Nguyen.
"Asian sauces are a lot more spicier and more potent in flavors. There's a lot of ginger and garlic," he says.
Nguyen spent three weeks in training with a CO chef in Savannah to learn the franchise's recipes before manning the kitchen of his dreams.
The CO menu is largely influenced by owner and founder Greg Bauer's travels. Bauer, a former Marine who was stationed throughout Asia, concocted the menu with inspiration from dishes that he tasted throughout the Asian countries he visited. The name "CO" (pronounced more like "go") means "feast" in old Northern Vietnamese.
Creative Loafing: How does working here differ from some of your past culinary work?
Tuan Nguyen: This is definitely a learning experience. I had never cooked a lot of Asian food or Asian-fusion before. Before moving to Charlotte I lived in Upstate New York my whole life and I cooked Italian food for 16 years because there are so many Italian restaurants there. Part of the reason I moved out to Charlotte was to get away from all the Italian food in New York and to try new things.
What's your personal favorite dish on the menu and what do you usually recommend people try if they're visiting for the first time?
Bun bo hue is my favorite. It's something my mom made when I was growing up. It's the spicy one with sliced brisket, lemongrass braised pork, bun rice noodles, purple cabbage and mint in a chili broth.
One of the dishes that I recommend people order if they're visiting for the first time is the curry laksa. Everybody orders that and it's also one of Greg's [Bauer, the owner] favorites. People really love the dumplings and the steamed buns, too.
There's also sushi here. Is there anything that you feel like distinguishes the sushi here from sushi you can find at some of the other Asian-style restaurants in town?
The pressed sushi is something different that you can get here. A lot of other places just serve sushi rolls. The pressed sushi is prepared with maze gohan rice and pressed with fish and stuff like that, so it's a little block of sushi instead of the seaweed stuff.