Feast on St. Louis: Behind the Apron with Qui Tran

Thursday July 23, 2020

The magnetic figure behind Nudo House and Mai Lee, Qui Tran, would rather be referred to as “restaurant dude” than owner or chef. He has spent most of his life in the restaurant business and still manages to find joy slinging noodles and building relationships with loyal customers.

Tran’s family came to the United States from Vietnam in 1980 and ended up in St. Louis. Forty years later, Tran says they are proud St. Louis residents and wouldn’t have it any other way.

His parents, who worked two to three jobs apiece when they arrived, didn’t plan to start a restaurant. “The plan was just to survive,” says Tran. But when his mother, Lee Tran, started working in Chinese restaurants, she saw an opportunity and tried to learn from it.

In 1985, she started the first Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis, which was just nominated for its first ever James Beard award in 2020 after all these years. Tran says he tried to relay the significance of the recognition to his parents, but they still said, “Alright, great. Get back to work.” There were still people to feed.

Higher Standards

Tran didn’t so much “enter” the food industry, because it’s where he’s always been. He grew up working in his family’s restaurant from a young age, and the industry has always been a part of his life. At one point, he resented the business because he worked through his childhood, but when his mom got sick for a little while, he was pulled back in with a new appreciation.

“I was a failure up until age 35 to my parents,” Tran says with a laugh. Helping run Mai Lee wasn’t enough – he needed to branch out and prove he could make something happen with a new concept.

The first time he had real ramen – introduced to him by his wife – he was blown away. At the time, he couldn’t believe someone wasn’t making it in St. Louis, to which she replied, “Why don’t you?”

So, in July 2017, he teamed up with chef Marie-Anne Velasco to introduce Nudo House, a fusion of all things noodles where guests can order ramen, pho and bánh mì. His parents are ecstatic.

Now he tries to balance his time between three locations – Nudo House in Creve Coeur, the new Nudo House location on Delmar and the longstanding Mai Lee. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love what I do,” says Tran. He loves being a part of the community in St. Louis and being inspired by other chefs.

Where to Begin

Tran encourages visitors not to be intimidated by the notoriously large menu at Mai Lee.Instead, ask your server to help guide you through the offerings and narrow down choices based on your palate. And when in doubt, you can never go wrong with their famous pho.

At Nudo House, meanwhile, there is a playful atmosphere that starts with the name. Nudo takes its name from the way children pronounce “noodle,” and is a theme carried through with punny menu items like “O’Miso Spicy” and wall art of Tran’s arm tattoos. Employees all wear “3-1-Pho” t-shirts, nodding both to the classic Vietnamese soup and the St. Louis area code. It’s a pun but also a statement about how integrated pho has become with St. Louis culture.

What Nudo House does best is blend cultures. That’s why next to ramen and pho, you may also find the Yo-Lo Mein or the Bánh Mì Pho Dip, a play on the French dip, inspired by years of watching customers dip their bánh mì into the pho at Mai Lee.

For making ramen, Tran sought inspiration from one of the four “Ramen Gods” in Japan, chef Shigetoshi Nakamura. Chef Naka as he is known has been founding successful restaurants in Japan since the age of 22. Now he has moved to the States and helps consult other chefs.

But the biggest inspiration for Tran is still his mother. He credits Lee – and her impeccable palate as his foundation in this business. “I’m forever learning,” he says.

He built on her pho recipe to develop the pho at Nudo House, which landed them on the cover of Food & Wine in 2018. As he spoke, his partner could be seen stirring what could only be described as a tank of that same pho broth behind the counter, infused with bone and vegetables.

Even after all these years, Tran is still humbled by his family’s support in the community.

“We came from nothing and appreciate you spending your hard earned money and time with us,” he says. He wants people to feel welcome at Mai Lee and Nudo House and feel the soul of each restaurant.

If people do, Tran says that’s thanks to the staff. As the team lines up and laughs together, it’s easy to see how these are restaurants built on the idea of family.

 

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