Trinh Nguyen and her family emigrated to Seattle in 1998, when she was only 11 years old. Initially there was a sense of excitement for a new beginning, she shares, with everything feeling completely different than in their Vietnamese home.
“We were promised a better living situation and a better future,” Nguyen says.
However, a few months later, reality set in.
“Everything in America was so different from our country," she said. "Starting out with the language which we did not speak and a whole new system that we had to quickly get acquainted to.”
Nguyen had spent time cooking with her mother and aunties growing up in Vietnam, though she never considered this as a potential career. In 2005, she was off to college when her parents opened a family restaurant — Pho T&N in Poulsbo, which she ended up helping run, thanks to her English.
In September 2019, she and her younger brother Thai realized another dream of opening Ba Sa, a modern Vietnamese restaurant on Bainbridge Island that quickly became a favorite among locals.
"We wanted to make our parents proud," she says, "but more than ever we wanted to showcase the beauty of our cuisine and culture."
As times have changed and the pandemic has forced the business to evolve, Nguyen has found creative ways to keep going and to give back to neighbors, too. In addition to running Ba Sa, she continues to oversee Pho T&N and is raising two young sons with her husband.
Nguyen admits that "dialing" in a new restaurant presents many challenges — from having to work with a completely new team and equipment to having a brand-new clientele as well.
"Most restaurateurs set out with a big vision and concept for their new restaurant," she says, "but oftentimes, it can take a minimum of one to two years to dial in what the community is looking for. In a sense, we are making the biggest bet/gamble of our lives. Betting that our concept will be what the area needs but unlike gambling, we have time to listen to our guests and adjust accordingly."
At Ba Sa, some of her favorite items to serve include: Taro Egg Rolls, Ga Roti (five spiced chicken), Sizzling Shrimp and Laksa Leaves served with baguette, Bun Bo Nam Bo (sautéed beef vermicelli), Ha Noi-style Beef Pho served with a Chinese donut.
Pre-pandemic, the restaurant didn't have a takeout program, so that was the first thing they tackled last spring. They then focused on finding delivery partners, customizing their menu to include more comfort foods, opening up the patio with COVID-19 safety regulations in mind, teaming up with the community to cover/winterize the patio and so on.
“Our team keeps working to reinvent the wheel to make sure everything fits under the newest guidelines,” she says.
With the first shutdown in March, Nguyen created the Community Rice Bowl (greens, pork belly and egg).
“Even now,” Trinh explains, “we still offer it to anyone who needs it. If you can't afford the $5 rice bowl, it's on the house.” She says they wouldn’t be here without the community, so it feels important to give back.
“We are all in this together,” she says. “Together we are stronger, and we will make it through this hard time together.”
Nguyen raves about how endlessly supportive the community has been — ordering takeout, continuing to support the venue with outdoor dining and uplifting her team every time diners visit. Others have been “lending a hand to help build out our patio, sending their family and loved ones to work for our team so that we can support and sustain the restaurant through this pandemic.”
“I couldn't ask for more,” Nguyen says. “The community is amazing. Just two years ago, I was the newbie to the island and fantasying about opening Ba Sa. We opened in September of 2019, and six months later the pandemic hit. The island community has welcomed us with open arms and helped keep our business going throughout these most difficult times.”