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!