The L’usine family extends across lands and oceans to New York City with our favorite Lower East Side Vietnamese eatery, An Choi. Vietnamese-American and first-time restaurant owners and brothers, Tuan and Huy Bui opened An Choi with first-time chef, Dennis Ngo. As it enters into its second year, it continues to secure its position as a prime destination for classic Vietnamese cuisine set in an intimate beautiful space inspired by that of an authentic Vietnamese street alley café with small metal stools and construction phone number graffiti lining the warmly lit walls.
On a beautiful Spring afternoon, I sat down with the brothers in their new Williamsburg, Brooklyn studio to reflect on the beginnings of An Choi, where it is now and where they see it going. As I walked past the first room of the studio, I peered in to see Huy and his architecture team, HB Collaborative, covered in wood shavings in their workspace. In the next room, Tuan was feverishly plugging numbers into a worksheet in preparation for an investor meeting. I waited patiently until they had a spare moment and then we began on a journey into the past and beginnings of An Choi.
The economic crash gave impetus to Tuan’s departure from the real estate industry. Huy had recently graduated with a Parsons Masters of Architecture degree. At this pivotal moment in their lives, they were individually seeking opportunities to work on projects aligned with their personal passions. Serendipitously inspired by a visit together to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in the Fall of 2008, the Bui brothers returned to New York excited with plans to concept a restaurant together. Before this trip, there was some talk of developing a fashion boutique. However, Huy said they “were just blown away by the raw energy of the city and found the ubiquitous street alley to be quite fascinating and full of vitality.” Tuan “wanted to bring this unique dining experience to NY” and that is how it all began.
Since its opening in February 2009 with the Vietnamese Tet/New Year, An Choi has received many accolades and mentions and has expanded its business in several ways. Listed alongside Saltie, Vinegar Hill House and Momofuku Milk bar, it was one of the Top Best Restaurants Under $25 by The New York Times in 2009. Tuan and An Choi were featured in a national U.S. Blackberry campaign, “Pursuing the Dream with Blackberry.”
The restaurant has expanded its physical space with custom and unique HB Collaborative designs and they have embraced their original love for fashion by bringing in Derrick Cruz’s Black Sheep and Prodigal Sons shop, Occulter, into part of the expanded space. For the restaurant expansion, HB Collaborative maintained the communal and casual family-style spirit of An Choi with a dining furniture collection that re-purposed architectural elements and reclaimed industrial materials with a series of tables, chairs, and benches derived from vintage doors, antique stair spindles, and other found objects.
Beyond its restaurant doors, An Choi participates in local food community events as part of the Lower East Side’s Hester Street Fair and Momofuku’s Lucky Rice Night Market.
To continue with the excitement, An Choi confirms the addition of a fully stocked bar at the restaurant by this Fall and there are talks of expanding in the future into other New York neighborhoods, top U.S. cities and possibly even into global markets with more gourmet, high-end cuisine.
As someone who has loved An Choi since day one, I felt honored to get this intimate update from the brothers and couldn’t maintain the excitement of my continued support for them when Tuan nodded to excellence. Keith McNally was unaware of the future NY restaurant empire that awaited him as his original film director career path was thwarted by a means to an end in restaurants finding himself as an oyster shucker to general manager of One Fifth. Speaking fondly, Tuan expressed admiration for McNally as well as his own commitment to his An Choi clientele, “As Keith McNally’s clients, such as Anna Wintour, grew he grew with them and we want to grow together with the community that surrounds us.”