Tan Lac Vien is a taste of Vietnam

by Julian Routh

Before last December, a hungry Squirrel Hill resident could find every type of Asian cuisine within walking distance — except Vietnamese.

This is what brought a wife and husband and their dainty Vietnamese bistro Tan Lac Vien to Murray Avenue.

Thy and Steve Ngo, longtime business owners and soulmates, have had their fair share of business ventures. Thy, a “Pittsburgher by heart,” owned a food truck and a nail salon. Her husband, a chef by profession, was the head chef at Benihana. The couple jointly owned a frozen yogurt shop, and then the takeout-only Azn Bistro in Oakland.

But something about Squirrel Hill, a walking community, was enticing.

Now, Thy and Steve are a team again and Tan Lac Vien is their new home. While Thy tends to the diverse crowd of customers, Steve prepares the menu’s 94 elaborate meal options on the grill.



“I’m like the supportive wife,” Thy says, giggling. “I take care of the front and he takes care of the back.”

The front of Tan Lac Vien is quiet; it falls somewhere between a romantic fine dining establishment and a comfortable lounge. The walls are lined with panels illuminated by red ambient lights. There are 12 tables, each set with a white plate, a pair of chopsticks and a pot of flowers. A small television screen hangs in the top corner of the dining room, flashing mouthwatering pictures of the bistro’s meals. The sound of silverware clacking can be heard from the entrance, where one table sits peacefully by the window.

The back of the restaurant is Steve’s kingdom. The kitchen is lined with metal bins of ingredients, and plastic containers of food are stacked in the fridge on the far side wall. The prep stations are where the many elaborate meals are created from scratch, including the banh xeo, a customer favorite. Banh xeo is a dish of crispy hand-fried crepes with shrimp and pork inside, wrapped in herbs.

Photo by Alyssa Kramer

Photo by Alyssa Kramer

But there is debate over which delicious entree is the customers’ favorite. Waitress Jessie Opperman says it’s the banh xeo. Thy says it has to be the pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup.

On a Saturday afternoon, the bistro is busy. Five tables are filled, and waitress Alice Chan paces back and forth between the kitchen and dining area. Two women sit at a table against the wall, staring in confusion at the menu. Chan, noticing their puzzled looks, approaches the women with a smile. One of the women points to an item on the menu.

“What is in the green curry?”

“Let me ask the chef for you.”

This is a normal occurrence at Tan Lac Vien. The menus, covered top to bottom in Vietnamese meal names, can be quite intimidating, the waitresses say. Numbers and letters correspond to each meal to avoid embarrassing mispronunciations, but it can be even harder to decide between the options.

That’s where the “super friendly” waitresses like Opperman and Chan come in.

“Everyone here knows the menu in and out,” says Opperman, a Squirrel Hill resident. “Someone here will know what you want.”

The two women at the table eventually decide on “BV6,” the bun thit nuong, a noodle bowl served with fresh herbs, bean sprouts and grilled pork. Immediately, an aroma permeates from the kitchen as Steve gets to work. The chef, arms covered in colorful tattoos, meshes ingredients together to create a picturesque platter of Vietnamese wonder.

Arguably, though, the two most important ingredients in the restaurant are husband and wife. Thy and Steve are like yin and yang, the waitresses say, and “whatever one is lacking, the other makes up.”

This is evident on a Wednesday afternoon, when Tan Lac Vien is at its slowest. Thy is at home taking care of the couple’s children, which forces Steve to come out of hiding in the kitchen to check on the front.

With the dining room nearly empty, the waitresses gather near the cash register near the entrance. Steve, a shy man, gazes out the window onto Murray where Thy’s car is normally parked. Today, Chan and Opperman are Steve’s spokespersons, answering questions from a visitor.

One is about the dynamic at work between him and his wife, to which he ponders, smiles and turns in the other direction. Chan laughs, thinking of a way to avoid prolonged silence.

“Yin and yang” is all she says, and Opperman echoes the statement. “Yes, yin and yang.”

All Steve can muster is a smile and a nod of his head before heading back to the kitchen, but it is genuine. Something’s missing on days when only half of the couple is working at the bistro. Perhaps it’s a sense of unity.

A few days before, when the eatery had the presence of both husband and wife, Thy compared owning a restaurant to being in a relationship.

“If you constantly keep your food consistent, and if it’s good food, you will be fine,” she says. “Once you lose that spark, maybe that’s when things change. It’s very involved.”

If one thing is for sure, Thy and Steve Ngo haven’t changed. Thy takes care of the front. Steve takes care of the back. Tan Lac Vien is their spark.