Thai Dang Champions Family and Flavors of Vietnam at HaiSous
“I just knew in my heart I wanted to really showcase what it is to cook Vietnamese.”
Thai Dang is the youngest of nine children—six brothers and three sisters. That meant that meals with the entire family, clamoring over bubbling hot pot or bò kho, a Vietnamese braised beef stew, were always an event. “I love that communal eating. It was just a chance for us to be together,” he says. “We were so busy helping mom and dad with the mortgage and working two jobs. But on the weekends, it was very special because we all ate together and hung out.”
Dang didn’t have childhood fantasies of becoming a renowned chef. He liked to draw, and was good with his hands, but directionless in terms of his career. He loved watching the original Iron Chef with his brother-in-law, so food was always an interest, but it was his high school civics teacher and a family friend that encouraged him to pursue a career in food. “Once it just clicked, it was pretty quick,” he says of enrolling in culinary school.
Having a big family and eating homemade Vietnamese food daily also helped.
Dang has worked as the chef de cuisine at Michelin-starred restaurants, but when it came to creating his own place, HaiSous, he wanted to channel everything he knows about Vietnamese cuisine and combat the preconceived notion that Vietnamese food has to be cheap to be authentic. “That is just systemic racism, right?” he asks. He discusses a friend scoffing at the idea of paying $17 for a bowl of pho, not understanding the lengthy process and quality meat that goes into creating a toothsome broth. “I have to charge you because it's a high-quality, high-end product and my restaurant—based upon rent and everything—I have to charge this way. It does screw us up because we are pigeon holed to a certain price point.”
There are also naysayers within his own community, but Dang doesn’t believe crafting high-end Vietnamese food makes him, or his recipes, any less Vietnamese. Despite the accolades and James Beard nomination, he is still putting “his soul” into the food. “I just knew in my heart I wanted to really showcase what it is to cook Vietnamese,” he says. “I extract the fundamentals of it and make it presentable. But when you eat it—you taste it—you’re like, ‘Holy shit, a Vietnamese person made this.’ But when you look at it, you're like, ‘Whoa, I never seen it before.’”
One thread that runs through Vietnamese food, regardless of whether it’s fine dining or a hole-in-the-wall, is nước mắm tỏi, a garlicky fish sauce dressing laced with Thai chilies and a balance of lime juice, sugar, and vinegar. “What I wanted to do was to show people how to make that dressing because you can enjoy it with seafood, meat, you could put it on a salad, you could use it to dip—it’s what is comforting to me.” To juxtapose the beloved dressing, Dang sears scallops and crafts a salad using seasonal and local produce. The result is a dish that blends both Dang’s Vietnamese heritage with the surrounding Chicago landscape. It’s also a dish that can be adaptable for any part of the country.
Aside from celebrating his Vietnamese heritage, Dang also wants HaiSous and its sister coffee shop next door, Cà Phê Đá, to be a beacon for the community in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. He provides ice for an elote man that’s been selling corn and agua frescas in the neighborhood for over 20 years in the summer, and a warm place to rest in the winter. He encourages customers to go to neighboring coffee shops if they’re looking for lattes or cappuccinos (Cà Phê Đá specializes in Vietnamese drip coffee).
HaiSous itself operates on a revenue-sharing model, so employees get both a wage and a cut of the profits. “I want to teach my team members the fundamentals of restaurants, how to run a business, how to be your own boss, and inspire them beyond just cooking,” he says, “instead of going back to the same mediocrity where you work your way up, be a cook, be a sous chef, then do this, be a server, be a manager. No, you can be whatever you want.”
It’s a family affair. Dang’s wife, Danielle, is the architect and designer behind both HaiSous and Cà Phê Đá. The furniture within Cà Phê Đá was constructed by Dang’s aunt and uncle in Vietnam. The coffee is a 50/50 blend of both robusta and arabica beans, which are grown on a farm owned by Dang’s sister-in-law and imported.
“I think that's the proudest thing—that I have built something that the community can be proud of,” he explains, beaming. “But also for the Vietnamese community we have garnered accolades and recognition. So I feel really proud to be a part of that.”
Simple “Nước mắm tỏi” fish sauce dressing
- 1/2 cup water, warm
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons vinegar (white or rice vinegar)
- 1-2 Thai chili (jalapeño/1-2 pinch red chili flakes are great substitute)
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 lime, squeezed
1. Mix all ingredients and set aside
Gỏi Sò Điệp
Seared scallop salad, farm lettuce, sweet peppers, radish, mint, green onions & fried garlic
- 4 u10 scallops
- 2-3 radishes
- 2 green onions
- 3 sweet peppers, baby bell
- 8 mint leaves
- 1 teaspoon fried garlic or 6-8 fried garlic slices
- nước mắm tỏi, recipe above
- 3 lettuce leaves, *whatever lettuce you have
For the scallop:
1. Add oil to a 12-14 inch sauté pan on high heat. Salt & pepper the scallops.
2. Once the oil starts to smoke, gently add the scallops to the pan. Make sure to space them evenly around the pan.
3. Sear for 1 1/2 minutes, then flip and kiss the other side.
4. Immediately transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Set aside.
5. Once cooled, cut into cubes.
For the green onion/radish/sweet pepper/mint salad:
1. In a medium bowl filled with cold water and some ice. You’re going to add the following ingredients in it:
- Shave your radish with a mandolin or slice with a sharp knife
- Cut green onions on a bias along with bottoms
- Slice the sweet peppers 1/4 in thick
- Rough cut mint leaves
2. Once all ingredients are added, drain and dry your mixture on paper towels. Set aside.
1. In a mixing bowl, add the scallops, add one tablespoon of nước mắm tỏi and mix.
2. Tear your lettuce leaves and add to the bowl, mix well and taste. Season with a little salt & black pepper.
3. Transfer to a serving plate, then garnish with the green onion/radish/sweet pepper/mint salad. 4. Drizzle a tablespoon of nước mắm tỏi on top & finish with scattered fried garlic.