Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam • Jangrak Choi watched the documentary over and over at home in Korea, impressed and energized by what he saw.
“The Rebirth of Korean Comfort Food in America” showed three brothers drawing on their family’s traditional cooking to run Namu Gaji, their San Francisco restaurant. It showcased New York chef Esther Choi, who said she creates dishes for her business, Mokbar, using her grandmother’s recipes.
And it told the story of Salt Lake City’s Cupbop, initially launched as a food truck after three Korean men who met while serving an LDS Church mission in Korea all moved to Utah. Their expanding fast-casual restaurants serve Korean barbecue in a bowl.
“That documentary made me want to run a business,” Choi said. “Not in the U.S.A. — I didn’t know where — but that program made me really inspired.”
He was especially drawn to Cupbop’s approach. And today, he and his partners run Nonla Guys restaurant in Ho Chi Mihn City — with a menu designed to mirror Cupbop, featuring inexpensive, quick-serve Asian flavors in a Mexican fusion, offered as a healthier alternative to fast food.
If a guest mentions being from Salt Lake City, the owners are quick to credit the role models who, by bringing Korean fare to Utah, motivated them to take it to Vietnam.
Choi had traveled to Vietnam with his brother, Sungrak Choi, and one of his brother’s friends in the summer of 2016, the year the Korean Broadcasting System documentary aired. Sungrak Choi had been introduced to Vietnamese food and culture by a Vietnamese college roommate. The friend, Dongrin Kim, had gone to Vietnam as a volunteer and loved the country.
The men realized starting a business would be easier in Vietnam than in Korea, Choi said, and eventually settled on offering Mexican food, an uncommon cuisine in Vietnam. To create the menu, Choi watched a lot of cooking videos and ate at Mexican restaurants.
To make their dishes a little more familiar, they decided to incorporate Asian flavors into quesadillas, tacos and burritos.
The traditional Vietnamese pork dish bun cha is the house specialty of Nonla Guys, named for the traditional cone-shaped straw hat called a nonla. Customers can order bun cha tacos, quesadillas, burritos or rice bowls.
“There are many Vietnamese that have said, ‘This is not bun cha,’” Choi said. “But we want to introduce Vietnamese food to many foreigners.”
Other meat fillings for the Mexican entrees on the Nonla Guys menu include Korean spicy barbecue pork, Korean beef bulgogi and Japanese style garaake chicken. There are also tofu options.
The rice bowls are most similar to what is served at Cupbop. These dishes include one of the meat or tofu fillings, vegetables and sauce. Like Cupbop customers, diners at Nonla Guys can customize the spice level of their bowl.
Just over half of the restaurant’s customers are from North America, Europe and Australia, Choi said. The rest are locals or come from other Asian countries.
Isuel Bae and her mother ate at Nonla Guys on a recent trip to Vietnam. Because she is also from Korea, Bae said the idea of men from Korea owning a Mexican restaurant in Ho Chi Mihn City intrigued her.
“I like eating new flavors, so I like fusion food,” Bae said. She said she would recommend the rice bowl she tried to anyone who likes Korean flavors or spicy food.
Nonla Guys is looking to expand, and the owners want to turn their business into a franchise. Choi said he feels thankful for his success and that he plans to continue learning from Cupbop as it grows. “They are good and we want to follow them,” he said.
Cupbop’s owners had tried Korean-Mexican fusion — and their own version of bulgogi burritos — with an early food truck called Kotako, said Cupbop co-owner Junghun Song. They turned it into a Cupbop truck when the Korean-barbecue-in-a-bowl sister business took off.
Cupbop now has more than a dozen storefronts in Utah, with other locations in Colorado, Idaho and even Indonesia. But the story of Nonla Guys gave Song a new feeling of success.
“That means we are doing well,” Song said. “If we are not doing well, they are not going to follow us. So that means a lot of things to me.”
Nonla isn’t the first business to be influenced by Cupbop. Song said copycats with the restaurant’s name and similar menus have popped up throughout Asia and North America.
But he said he doesn’t mind. As a small business owner, he wants others to be successful, too. “If Korean food is getting popular in the United States,” he said, “it’s got to be good for everyone.”