The kitchen is the heart of the home. It is where the family congregates, investigating dishes being cooked and sharing the day's events. Where secret ingredients are divulged and beloved recipes are passed down. It is where we nourish our souls and our relationships, creating meals and memories. With only four tables and an order counter, the constant bustle of customers and orders steadily flowing in and out of its doors, the restaurant that sisters Mary Nguyen and Kristin Liu have created maintains a similar vibe to that of the idyllic home kitchen. Naming that restaurant the Kitchen (14065 New Halls Ferry Road, 314-831-9292) couldn't have been more natural.
Since their parents Tram and Vuong Nguyen opened the first Chinese Gourmet in Florissant in 1984, family has always been at the core of the business. The sisters joke that as more family emigrated from Vietnam, their parents would open additional locations so they would have a place to work. Uncle Manh Nguyen ran the second Chinese Gourmet location in Ferguson throughout the 1990s. Tram and Vuong helmed the third Chinese Gourmet inside the now-defunct mall St. Louis Centre, but once that location closed, Aunt Dung Nguyen helped Tram run a more modern concept in downtown St. Louis, the Bamboo Bistro, starting in the mid-aughts. Since Nguyen and Liu grew up in restaurants, it was natural for them to get involved. Mary would help run Bamboo Bistro. Meanwhile, Kristin built her work experience at upscale establishments such as Juniper, Miracle STL and Taste by Niche. Matriarch Tram Nguyen retired in 2017 and passed away in March 2020. The pandemic followed immediately after, prompting the closure of the Bamboo Bistro, the family's last remaining location.
Less than two years later, Nguyen and Liu decided to make use of the original Chinese Gourmet location to carry on the family tradition — however, they had to adjust to the industry's current landscape. The buffet model integral to the original restaurants was no longer viable. The sisters decided to use only a small portion of the building, employing a modern, fast-casual format, and focusing on carryout and delivery supplemented with a smaller dining room.
The menu at the Kitchen offers the Chinese American favorites from Chinese Gourmet as well as Bamboo Bistro's addition of Vietnamese and Thai fare. With their aunt, Dung Nguyen, and Tony Le, longtime family friend and Chinese Gourmet chef for 22 years, in the kitchen, Mary Nguyen and Liu have revived and preserved their mother's recipes.
To begin my exploration of the Kitchen's menu, I eschewed my predictable crab Rangoon tendencies and opted for fried wontons. I mused to Nguyen and Liu how fried wontons, which I remember being just as ubiquitous as their cream-cheese-filled counterparts in my youth, have virtually vanished over the years. They suggested that, aside from the undeniable love affair that we Midwesterners have with cream cheese, it might be due to disappointment by the lack of filling — not something you need to worry about at the Kitchen. Their wontons are packed with garlicky ground pork. While they look similar to crab Rangoon on the outside, they more closely resemble a deep-fried pot sticker from the inside. Their signature egg rolls are not the common stumpy, often bland, appetizers encased in a thick, bubbled skin. Rather, the Kitchen serves traditional Vietnamese spring rolls, stuffed with vermicelli noodles, ground pork, taro, jicama, mung bean and carrot, tightly swathed in a thin, golden-brown wrapper. Both fried appetizers are served with a housemade sweet-and-sour sauce.The hot braised chicken wings were among the Chinese Gourmet holdovers that I ordered. The generous assortment of flats and drummies were plump and tender, fried and glazed with a familiar sticky, sweet sauce. I also tried the signature wonton noodle soup, a Vietnamese classic. Thin slices of housemade char siu pork sat alongside shrimp, delicate pork and shrimp-filled wontons, bean sprouts, lettuce and cilantro, all resting on a bed of egg noodles and steeped in a light, earthy and herbaceous broth. This comforting soup ticks all the boxes.
A more unique offering is the beef potato. Dreamt up by Tram Nguyen herself and inspired by the affordability of the common tuber, this dish of sliced beef and waffle-cut potatoes, carrots and onions sauteed in a marinated soy-and-oyster-sauce-based gravy was unironically created to appeal to the "meat and potatoes" crowd. After being added to the buffet lineup, it quickly became popular and never left. Another distinctive dish is the shaking salmon. Combining elements of both the Vietnamese staple shaking beef with salt-and-pepper shrimp, this pescatarian spinoff is Le's brainchild. Well-seasoned chunks of tender salmon are lightly crisped up in a searing-hot wok with onion and bell pepper, where the dish picks up deep flavor and slight smokiness.
The Kitchen also offers regional Chinese-American favorites, such as crab Rangoon, the St. Paul sandwich and the dish I went with — Springfield cashew chicken. For those unfamiliar with the Springfield, Missouri, original, it involves chicken lightly coated in cornstarch and flour and deep fried. The crispy pieces of chicken are then thinly coated with a savory caramel-colored gravy and topped with scallions and cashews.
Upon the recommendation of Liu, I ordered the yang chau fried rice. Traditionally a Vietnamese and Chinese wedding dish, this yellow-tinted rice dish is flavored with umami-packed fish sauce and is chock-full of flavorsome morsels of Chinese sausage, whole shrimp, pork, onion, carrot and green beans. This is a fully realized dish designed for a special occasion, rather than a way to use up leftovers.
Another recommendation came from the menu's stir-fry section. Customers pick a style of stir fry (e.g. teriyaki, Mongolian, Hunan, red curry) and then choose a protein. Liu mentioned that the mushroom stir fry made her fall in love with the sumptuous fungus, so I ordered it with chicken. The chicken took a back seat to the meatiness of the mushrooms, the undeniable star of the plate. This was the unexpected sleeper hit of the meal. This seemingly simple preparation transcended the menu description.
This is the essence of why the Kitchen is special. The menu is filled with standbys seen on countless menus, but what makes the Kitchen's renditions of these dishes outstanding stems back to the core of the family's philosophy — cooking with high-quality ingredients, using better, often more labor intensive, techniques, and executing dishes with consistency. Nguyen and Liu, along with their partners, strive to honor this legacy. The sisters hope to eventually utilize the rest of the Chinese Gourmet building by opening up other retail concepts. But for now, they will continue trying to perfect their family's recipes and feed St. Louis as their family has done for nearly four decades.