CORALVILLE — People told Leon Truong it wasn’t a good idea to open a restaurant. But that didn’t stop the entrepreneur from taking the leap and opening his Vietnamese-focused restaurant Asian Taste a year after opening a grocery store, World Fresh Market in September, 2018.
The grocery store’s building was divided into two spaces, and Truong had rented the restaurant side to another Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon’s Corner. When that business relocated to the Old Capitol Town Center this fall, Truong decided to try his hand at running a restaurant himself rather than looking for another tenant.
“I always wanted to open a restaurant, but I thought I couldn’t do it,” he said. “People told me restaurants were really hard, and it kind of scared me off.”
Still, he said running the grocery store was going well, so he decided to give it a try, opening Asian Taste Restaurant on Oct. 15.
“So far, so good,” he said. “I have a good team, a good chef.”
The two businesses complement each other, as he imports Vietnamese ingredients and fresh seafood via Chicago for both businesses. He also bakes bread daily for both businesses, which he uses to make banh mi sandwiches. He learned the skill from an uncle who has a Vietnamese grocery store in Houston.
“I like cooking. I enjoy when people eat my food,” Truong said. “It’s been so fun, serving people, seeing them like their food, and coming up with new dishes to share with people.
He also relies on head chef Jay Tang, who turns his ideas for dishes into reality.
The menu includes several variations on the popular Vietnamese soup pho, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and entrees with noodles or rice. “We have a smaller menu, but we want to focus on quality and add to it slowly,” Truong said.
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A popular item has been pork chop with rice and a sunny-side-up egg, which Truong said is a popular breakfast dish in Vietnam. He also serves traditional Vietnamese coffee and Thai iced tea, both served with condensed milk, as well as fruit smoothies and freshly pressed sugar cane juice.
Truong moved with his family from Vietnam to Cedar Rapids in 1995 when he was 11. He graduated from Washington High School and studied economics at the University of Iowa before opening World Fresh Market.
He said he saw a gap in the grocery market he could help fill.
“When I went shopping around here and was looking for Vietnamese products, there was not so much choice,” he said. “I thought there were other people like me with the same problem, no access to Vietnamese food. And there is quite a big Asian community around here.”
While he carries some pan-Asian products and brands from various countries, the focus is on Vietnam. Products like spices, snacks, sauces, produce and seafood help remind people of home, he said. Customers from other Asian countries often are looking for their own brands that they know and remember, he noted. People like to see something familiar.
“We have whatever Vietnamese people need for their kitchen. I have an advantage because I know what they need,” he said.
An especially popular item he sources through Chicago hs been live blue crabs. He also sources produce that is often hard to find in Iowa, like fresh lychee, guava, jackfruit and rambutan.
In the future, he’d like to expand the catering side of the business and perhaps open additional Asian Taste locations.
“We want to sell more banh mi and introduce it to other cultures and other cities,” he said. “Because it’s so good, but it’s not as popular yet here.”
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If you go
• What: Asian Taste
• Where: 2301 Second St., Unit 2, Coralville
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Monday and Wednesday to Saturday; closed Tuesday
• Details: (319) 351-5929, facebook.com/AsianTasteRestaurantCatering