An earlier version of a story about an Asian-inspired feast incorrectly reported the name of the restaurant where chef Grace Nguyen previously worked. She is an alum of Slanted Door, a San Francisco restaurant.
Lion dancers, acrobats and firecrackers will fill city streets and parks this weekend as families around the world celebrate the Lunar New Year. Whether you're greeting the Year of the Snake or celebrating Tet, it's a sure sign that a holiday has gone charmingly cross-cultural when kindergarten classes from Bangor to Burbank parade across playgrounds waving paper dragons.
In the Bay Area, families embrace that multicultural dynamic, especially when it comes to celebratory cuisine, mingling fragrances and flavors in new ways. That's certainly true in the home of Slanted Door alum Grace Nguyen and her husband, Chad Newton, the culinary talents behind Asian Box in Palo Alto and Mountain View. Their new-wave, Asian-inspired feast offers a delicious way to celebrate this or any other holiday.
The first time the couple hosted a spread like this -- a serve-yourself extravaganza of lettuce cups, grilled meats, noodles, intriguing Asian-inspired sauces and colorful, savory condiments -- was for their wedding rehearsal dinner. It was such a hit that they've repeated the theme for celebrations of every sort, from Christmas Day feasts to more casual get-togethers for friends and family.
"Crowds love it," says Newton, who cooked at San Francisco's Postrio and the now-shuttered Baraka. "Gracie is Vietnamese, I'm just American -- and it works so well for both sides. It's a little different format for the Vietnamese, who put out spring roll wrappers and roll their own spring rolls based on what they want to put in it. My side of the family loved it because it was something kind of new for them."
Newton and Nguyen start with an all-purpose marinade that works equally well with chicken, pork, beef or tofu. The protein is grilled and sliced, so guests can tuck it into lettuce cups and amp up flavors with drizzles of tamarind vinaigrette, for example, or Nguyen's homemade vivid red chile sauce, dubbed Miss Jones' Sriracha. The couple's twist on fish sauce adds more than a dash of umami.
"You have the meat, one or two sauces, and the sky's the limit," Newton says. "That's what's fun about it. It's really healthy, and it's not even trying to be. It's mostly vegetables, grilled items with a light sauce, not a lot of gluten, not a lot of fat."
The vegetables come in the form of garnishes that put the whole thing over the top, lending color and texture to the buffet table, as well as pops of flavor for the palate -- and anything goes.
"That's the great thing about Vietnamese culture and their food," Newton says. "Do fresh mint, cilantro and Thai basil, just picked and mixed together. Toasted peanuts, fried shallots, pickled vegetables, wedges of lime on the side."
And if that description is starting to evoke the Asian Box menu, that's no surprise. That wedding rehearsal dinner inspired the restaurant's approach as well. It's fresh, exciting fare for a new life -- and a new year.