Review: Tân Lac Viên

Chef Steve Ngo achieves his dream of opening a Vietnamese spot, Tân Lac Viên, with his wife in Squirrel Hill’s bustling Murray Avenue business district.




Photos by Laura Petrilla
 

 

Lower Murray, as Squirrel Hill residents call it, is jam-packed with intimate eateries, bakeries and coffee shops. Despite its small size, recent arrival Tân Lac Viên (Vietnamese for “new, happy place”) makes a big splash with bold flavors. 

Tân Lac Viên is the creation of Steve and Thy Ngo. Steve was raised in Saigon and has Vietnamese and Chinese roots. Thy, his wife, was born in Cambodia and raised in Homestead. The two met while studying at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s a lifelong entrepreneur, having owned a nail salon, frozen-yogurt shop and food truck. Steve, who has 20 years of kitchen experience, had always imagined that he’d run his own place.

Vietnamese cuisine is recognized for its lightness. Broth-based dishes, noodles, rice and quickly cooked meats are plated with an abundance of raw vegetables and herbs; sauces traditionally are served on the side. Everything at Tân Lac Viên is made in-house, including the fish sauce with chilis. “We want our food to be truly traditional and authentic,” says Thy Ngo. “Good food doesn’t need to be diluted or toned down.”

The most well-known Vietnamese dish is the soup pho, and Tân Lac Viên’s version doesn’t disappoint. A lot of love goes into each bowl, as chefs invest about five hours in the fragrant oxtail broth. Every bowl (menu items N1-8, $10-$13) includes thin vermicelli noodles and your choice of meatballs, tripe, tendon, sliced beef or chicken. You will also receive the traditional side plate of Thai basil, cilantro, culantro (sometimes called “long coriander”), bean sprouts, lime, jalapeño and hot sauce, which you can add as you like.
 


A popular dish is the com tam, which is “broken” short-grain rice served with a variety of optional ingredients. I tried the com tam suon bi op la (CT2, $13), which features a sliced pork chop, shredded pork, a fried egg and an accompaniment of lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes with a bowl of fish sauce to pour on top.

Among the appetizers, the cold goi cuon dish (A1, $5 for two) is refreshing, with a few shrimp, pork-belly strips, noodles, lettuce and fresh basil rolled in rice wrappers. For a more decadent choice, the deep-fried cha gio (A2, $5 for two) spring rolls are filled with pork and plated with fresh herbs and fish sauce.

The bun dac biet (BV1, $13) (in the noodle bowl category without broth) is a layering of lettuce, rice noodles and vegetables, topped with tender grilled pork and shrimp plus one cha gio. The ca chien don nuoc mam xoai (V7, $35) is especially good-looking, featuring a whole red snapper deep-fried in a tempura-like batter and served on shaved green mango and vegetables. 

Tân Lac Viên has more than 22 vegetarian dishes, many of which are made with tofu. The pho broth is rich and flavorful.

One dessert in particular caught my attention: the che Thai (D2, $5), which is like ambrosia in a glass; it’s composed of coconut milk over ice, with chunks of tropical fruits (jackfruit, longan and lychee) that have been prepared in green gelatin and a sprinkle of sweet corn kernels. Enjoy this dessert with a straw and spoon.

Tân Lac Viên occupies the former space of La Cucina Flegrea, which relocated to Market Square. Decor is the restaurant’s weakest aspect. Its interior contains uninspired furnishings and black panels backlit with colored lighting.

The high point is a TV that displays a slideshow of the eatery’s food; our server said diners often order unfamiliar items after seeing those dishes on the screen.

The restaurant also has a second-floor room that accommodates up to 25 people and has been popular for private events, such as business meetings.

“Our clients are trying new things and stepping out of their comfort zones,” says Thy Ngo. “We really appreciate our clients trusting us with their health and their palates. Our reception has been even better than we ever expected. We are very grateful.”



 

Steve & Thy Ngo | Chef/Co-Owner & Co-Owner, Tân Lac Viên



 

How long were you planning for Tân Lac Viên?  
Steve wanted his own restaurant for almost eight years. We’d been seriously talking about it for seven years, looking at locations, dishes, other restaurants — forming ideas of what we wanted. We loved this location and the small size; it is a good starting point for a new restaurant. 

How did word spread about your restaurant?  
Honestly, we did very little. Before we opened, we had a “coming soon” sign outside. The day we opened, the restaurant was packed. We were shocked. It’s still all word-of-mouth.

Are there any changes you’ve made because of customer feedback?  
We were surprised by how many people requested vegetarian entrées. From the beginning, we told people that we could make any dish vegetarian, but they really wanted a menu section dedicated to vegetarian options. So we created one. Now, 40 percent of our sales come from vegetarian dishes.

What characteristics make Vietnamese food different?  
[It] is very fresh and has a strong emphasis on fresh herbs. Steve goes to the Strip every morning for herbs and vegetables. We offer some interesting herbs such as Vietnamese perilla that are not commonly [found] in Pittsburgh. 

Why do you think people have responded so well to your food?  
There is a lot of talent and passion in the kitchen. Steve cooks or oversees every dish. We put a lot of energy into doing things right.

You have a dessert made from the distinctive durian fruit — the sticky rice with durian sauce. How do people like it?  
It’s my favorite dessert that we offer. It’s my mother’s recipe; you cook the durian and serve it on sticky rice. Cooking the durian depletes the pungent smell, so you are left with the nice taste. Honestly, more people love it than hate it!

 

Gallery

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

The month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

The list of the regions's 687 leading physicians across 80 specialities.
Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

In a city known for world-class care, a life dedicated to health is rewarding, challenging, and innovative at every level — from med school to the board room.
Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Can McLay reshape the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in his polite, communication-heavy, community-friendly, racially sensitive, 21st-century image?
The Eaglets Have Landed

The Eaglets Have Landed

The bald eagles nesting in Hays once again have given birth to a new generation. We take you into the nest to see how quickly the two chicks are growing.
Review: Justin Severino Knocks It Out of the Park With Morcilla

Review: Justin Severino Knocks It Out of the Park With Morcilla

Severino's follow-up to Cure is already winning national accolades.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Ross Photographer's Out of This World Picture To Be On Postage Stamp

Ross Photographer's Out of This World Picture To Be On Postage Stamp

The stunning photo of a star trail around Mt. Rainier took two hours to shoot.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Umami Izakaya (Finally) Open in Lawrenceville

Umami Izakaya (Finally) Open in Lawrenceville

The much-anticipated Japanese pub from Tamari's Roger Li and Round Corner Cantina's Derek Burnell will serve food and drink deep into the night.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Lawrenceville's New, Different Nighttime (and Morning) Destination

Lawrenceville's New, Different Nighttime (and Morning) Destination

The Abbey on Butler — part coffeehouse, part restaurant, part bar — could prove to be a major Lawrenceville destination.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pirates Still Searching For Response to Arrieta-Caliber Dominance

Pirates Still Searching For Response to Arrieta-Caliber Dominance

The Bucs’ wild-card failures the last two seasons have cast a shadow of doubt if not impending doom over a season that otherwise ought to be ripe with promise.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Welcome Warm Weather with This Bright Summer Shift Dress

Welcome Warm Weather with This Bright Summer Shift Dress

Local fashion line Kelly Lane has the perfect dress to kick off your summer style.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Your Mother Deserves Better than This Awful Mother's Day Movie

Your Mother Deserves Better than This Awful Mother's Day Movie

Reviews of "Mother's Day," "Keanu," "Green Room" and local film news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Finding Sunshine on a Rainy Wedding Day in Pittsburgh

Finding Sunshine on a Rainy Wedding Day in Pittsburgh

You don’t always need blue skies and sunshine to have a beautiful and memorable wedding. One couple shares their advice on making the most of a rainy wedding day and what to do when the forecast is less than ideal.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Far From Ordinary House Tour in Wilkinsburg This Weekend

A Far From Ordinary House Tour in Wilkinsburg This Weekend

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation hosts a one-of-a-kind house tour on May 7.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
STEM Event for Girls Planned at La Roche College

STEM Event for Girls Planned at La Roche College

The Tech Savvy program from the American Association of University Women aims to interest middle school girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Comments