EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a revision to Monsoon’s opening date.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The dishes are stacked and the place settings are ready inside Grand Rapids’ next culinary experience: Monsoon Vietnamese Cuisine, which co-owner Phong Nguyen expects to open at 4 p.m. on June 2.
“I think people are ready to be outside and enjoy the weather, enjoy another dining experience. So why not? Why not (a) Vietnamese restaurant?” Said Nguyen, who is also the restaurant’s chef.
The restaurant is getting ready to open at 55 Monroe Center NW, which was previously home to Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine. For months, crews have transformed the colorful interior into a tribute to Vietnam filled with wood furnishings and artwork from the country.
“We’re excited to be part of a special dining experience here,” Nguyen said.
BRINGING VIETNAM TO GRAND RAPIDS
Workers installed a new bar, flooring and tiling and added new tables and chairs, including a private chef table overlooking the open concept kitchen Nguyen fell in love with when he first visited the space.
Nguyen teamed up with three other entrepreneurs from Vietnam to create Vietbrother Restaurant, LLC and the casual fine dining concept for Monsoon.
“We’re really excited to (bring and) share our thoughts about food, about culture to the restaurant,” he said.
Nguyen says they turned to a Vietnamese architectural group to design the space. Conical hats cover the walls, and rattan banners form the shape of Vietnam. Rattan lighting fixtures from Vietnam dangle from the ceiling and plants line the glass windows.
“Vietnam, it’s a tropical country. We are surrounded with so many forests and also a lot of plants around us. It just brings the energy, fresh energy to the restaurant,” Nguyen said.
He says the owners picked the name “Monsoon” because of its ties to their home country and the resilience it evokes.
“In Vietnam, monsoon season is always a hard time for everyone. And during the pandemic, it reminds us of no matter how hard it is, we see can be stronger and we can get better. And I think the pandemic is almost over, but Monsoon is here to remind you that business can be surviving and can be thriving,” Nguyen said.
COMING TO AMERICA
Monsoon marks a milestone for Nguyen, who came from Vietnam to Grand Rapids a decade ago to study culinary arts at Grand Rapids Community College. He continued learning at Ferris State University, graduating with a hospitality and management degree in 2020.
“I just loved the culture over here,” he said. “Grand Rapids people are super friendly and they have helped me to develop myself in a different way, and I have grown so much since then and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
His time in the local restaurant industry has also proved rewarding in building a new business. Nguyen says most of Monsoon’s 20 employees were his previous co-workers.
“I’ve been telling them about this idea for over a year and they were so excited and so happy to come over and want to start the new journey with me. So that’s a blessing that we don’t have to hire a lot of people because we already have a mutual connection,” he said.
ON THE MENU
Because of supply chain issues spurred by the pandemic, the owners trimmed down Monsoon’s menu from 30 items to about 19 dishes including pho, steak, chicken, beef, tomahawk pork chops and Vietnamese appetizers. Nguyen says they’ll flavor the food with a lot of roots and herbs commonly found in Vietnamese cuisine, including lemongrass, galangal, ginger and garlic.
“I think we set up a really solid menu that they will not find anywhere else in all the Vietnamese restaurant(s) around town,” Nguyen said.
He says the menu also pays homage to Vietnam by focusing on fresh ingredients and using the country’s typical cooking method.
“There’s a lot of burger and steak (options) around here, and we want to bring that Vietnamese flavor with (a) charcoal grill into GR,” Nguyen explained.
Monsoon’s bar will start with its twist on Curious brand mocktails and fresh juice churned out by a juicer. The owners expect to expand to a full bar with liquor this fall, once Monsoon’s liquor license is approved.
Monsoon’s grand opening will take place once all the equipment is in, repairs and inspections are finished and worker training wraps up.
“We came to this idea together for more than a year already and then finally it (be)came… real. It’s a dream come true,” Nguyen said.
Monsoon will be open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. The restaurant can seat 45 people inside and a dozen people outside on its streetside patio.