Meet the inventive young couple behind Hết Sẩy, a delicious, modern take on Mekong Delta flavors in East San Jose.
On Sunday mornings, out of the kitchen of a 30-year-old Vietnamese sandwich shop in a nondescript East San Jose strip mall, Duy An and Hieu Le pay tribute to the flavors of their two homes: Vietnam and California.
Duy An is from the Mekong Delta, a network of rivers, canals and tributaries in southwestern Vietnam, where much of the country’s rice and fish comes from. Her husband, Hieu, is from Tây Ninh, near the Cambodian border, but he grew up in Sacramento. They met in Toronto, where Duy An was studying business. Three days later, he proposed. She said yes, and left Canada for California in 2011, she says, “for love.”
Neither are professionally trained chefs — Hieu works in software sales and Duy An in retail — but together, they serve original food that tells a story about the two worlds they inhabit.
The couple started the Hết Sẩy pop-up last summer, growing it organically through Instagram and word of mouth. (“Hết Sẩy” means “awesome” in Vietnamese, a declaration most often made in relation to food, Duy An said.) They describe themselves as obsessive home cooks who are “constantly thinking about our next meals, often while we are eating.” They make their own sauces, salts, vanilla extract, kimchee, salt-cured lemons and lạp xưởng, spiced Chinese sausage, from scratch.
They felt like the Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose took too “broad” of a stroke to their native cuisine. They didn’t always see themselves in the food.
“I’m not knocking the Vietnamese restaurants that are here and we’re grateful for being in this area, but sometimes you want something that speaks to how we are as one-and-a-half, second-generation,” Hieu said. “We want something a little … different that speaks to how we live our life … but at the same time rooted in the Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese flavor that we grew up with.
“We’re introducing flavors that are lost in some ways,” he said.
On a recent Sunday morning, Vietnamese folk music and Delta Blues played over the speakers at Thanh Lan, the longtime Vietnamese deli with mint green walls and string lights that houses the pop-up. Duy An — wearing a straw hat and bright red patterned shirt — brought out plates of the couple’s take on pâté vit ốp-la, a traditional Mekong breakfast dish. They pair homemade duck liver pâté, spiced sausage, a fried egg, pickled daikon and cucumber with salmon roe and hunks of toasted levain bread from the Midwife and the Baker. Served on the metal skillet it’s cooked on, the dish is a palette of flavors, colors and textures.
The couple themselves are colorful; Duy An can often be found wearing brightly colored hats and funky outfits that they feature on the Hết Sẩy Instagram.
The two feel strongly about cooking with local, seasonal produce and quality products like Berkshire pork and the fresh-milled bread, which shows up in several dishes. The acidic sourdough pairs well with the “sweeter and more aromatic tastes of Vietnamese food,” Hieu said.
The couple uses palm sugar, common in the Mekong Delta, to marinate a charcoal-grilled pork chop served over broken rice — the first dish they eat after arriving in the Mekong Delta — flavored with sweet, aromatic pandan (another ubiquitous ingredient in southern Vietnam, they said). At the pop-up, every table gets a jug of cold water infused with the plant’s grassy, coconut-y flavor.
Hieu and Duy An amp up the broken rice with the pork chop, a runny fried egg, shredded bì (pork skin that Hieu pan fries to get it to crisp and caramelize), pickled garlic leeks and homemade fish sauce on the side.
For the hủ tiếu gò công, a clear noodle soup, it’s the accoutrements that make it distinctly of the Mekong Delta.
“The South, specifically Gò Công, in the Mekong Delta, the noodle soup of choice for breakfast or anytime is called ‘hủ tiếu’ and what makes hủ tiếu in Gò Công so regionally different than anywhere in the South is the addition of a side dish of pickled chilies and cubed daikon,” the couple writes on Instagram, where they post detailed, personal descriptions of dishes. “The side dish may seem like a minute addition, but that pickle is crucial to the soup for added texture and as a palette cleanser to offset the intense, rich pork bone broth.”
(A Vietnamese “auntie” from the Mekong Delta tested Duy An recently about this regional nuance; without the daikon pickle, it’s not a Mekong-style soup, she said.)
They top the soup with a tangle of rich shredded pork, a chunk of rich liver, quail eggs and herbs.
“The way we make it is very traditional. This is what my wife grew up eating in terms of the flavor,” Hieu said. “Depending on the region of Vietnam you’re from, every hủ tiếu is different. There’s a lot of variation.”
The Hết Sẩy menu changes seasonally. Past renditions have included oyster congee (inspired by a “hot, flavorful, briny and to-the-point” version the couple shared in Saigon as newlyweds) and banh mi with lap xưởng, sausage that families from Saigon to the Mekong Delta air dry on roads outside in the sun, Hieu said. Duy An has worked to perfect her recipe for several years, starting with rice wine steeped with spices and aromatics that she adds to ground pork shoulder, candied lard, soy, garlic, fleur de sel, peppercorns and other ingredients.
A somewhat irreverent dessert creation, the “movin’ to the Eastside” sweet potato pie, is their Vietnamese take on a classic American dessert, with whipped cream, toasted coconut and black diamond salt.
“The more we do these pop-ups we realize there’s such a big gap from what we think Vietnamese food is and what it should be and what it could be to what’s offered here,” Hieu said, “We just want to express ourselves through our food.”
Hieu and Duy An live close to the pop-up’s current location at Thanh Lan. But come March, they’re going to have to find a new home. The owners of the sandwich shop are retiring, so the last Hết Sẩy pop-up there is this Sunday, Feb. 23, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hết Sẩy will be temporarily on hold while the Les visit the Mekong Delta for a wedding and then return to nail down a new location, hopefully still in East San Jose.
Their host’s retirement is another source of motivation for the couple.
“These generations who have been feeding us and giving us homesick Vietnamese flavor from back home, as they get older, the younger generations … know how to cook but they’re not interested in pursuing this restaurant world,” Hieu said. “We see it as a chance to step up.”
Follow Hết Sẩy’s Instagram for updates on the pop-up.
For more coverage of San Jose’s deep-rooted Vietnamese food scene, check out our other articles in this series:
- How San Jose became America’s Vietnamese food mecca
- 10 spots to get acquainted with San Jose’s booming Vietnamese food scene
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