Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Here to Win: Chef Mike Nguyen Scores a Victory with His Ramen-Focused Noodle Tree

Posted By on Wed, Jul 17, 2019 at 10:10 AM

click to enlarge LEA THOMPSON
  • Lea Thompson
Name: Mike Nguyen
Profession: Chef, owner of Noodle Tree
Age: 32
Birthplace: Huntington Beach, California
Big impact: There are no frills at Noodle Tree, but Nguyen’s training and his dedicated staff aim to deliver food experiences usually reserved for fine dining establishments.
Little-known fact: Makes Liquid Rage hot sauce in his house using habanero, jalapeño and ghost peppers.
Money quote: “I stayed here because I love San Antonio. I was serious about creating something of my own.”

Chef Mike Nguyen grew up in Huntington Beach, California, playing sports and cooking with his sister, who helped raise him after their mom passed away. But it wasn’t until a football injury in college sidelined his sports ambitions that he seriously considered a culinary career.

Nguyen had zero culinary experience when he stepped into chef Wolfgang Puck’s Washington, D.C. restaurant the Source in 2008 looking for a job. But management responded to his enthusiasm and willingness to learn. They offered him a job on the spot.

“I learned everything I needed to know, culinary-wise, while I was there,” Nguyen said. “The restaurant pushed me to work with incredible chefs and adapt to any challenge.”



His position at the Source also allowed him to travel and visit food hot-spots like Momofuku in New York, which sparked his love for ramen. Eventually, he left D.C. to work in restaurants throughout the country, always researching and testing his own take on the definitive Japanese noodle dish. In 2016, he relocated to San Antonio to be closer to his family and then girlfriend.

“It didn’t work out with the girl, and my family ended up moving back to California,” he said.

Additional setbacks followed. One of Nguyen’s nieces passed away, and he left the kitchen to focus on coaching job opportunities before he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Through it all, he remained in the Alamo City.

“I stayed here because I love San Antonio,” he said. “I was serious about creating something of my own.”
click to enlarge LEA THOMPSON
  • Lea Thompson
Realizing there would never be a “good time” to open a restaurant, Nguyen leapt into action in early 2018, launching a food truck and successful weekly ramen pop-ups at the Stone Oak bar Green Lantern. He was on track to open a restaurant late last year when the investors got cold feet. Undaunted, he found a space near UTSA inside a former Pita Pit franchise that would allow him to test his dining concept before signing a lease.

He opened the restaurant on January 11, his mother’s birthday. Fortunately, he quickly found loyal fans.

At Noodle Tree, Nguyen has managed to create a space all his own. The ramen shop allows customers to select their preferred flavor profiles — sweet, savory or spicy, all designed with the intent of not overwhelming palates.

There are no frills at the eatery, but Nguyen’s training and his dedicated staff aim to deliver food experiences usually reserved for fine dining establishments. For example, he demands that the restaurant use house-pickled ginger, fresh produce and high-quality meats. Each bite is evidence that great ingredients in capable hands lead to great food.

Customers, including anyone from UTSA students to Spurs legend David Robinson, keep coming back for fresh-made dumplings, pulled pork bao buns and a variety of dishes, including menudo ramen.

Since finding his stride, Nguyen has expanded Noodle Tree from 26 seats to 72 and is mulling a second location.

“We should have never been here,” he said, reflecting on the number of obstacles he had to overcome to get the restaurant open. “My standards are so high, and I hate to fail. In the restaurant business, perfection is demanded but it’s never obtained. You can only chase it. We are always trying to be better.”

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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