Whether you’re unwrapping banana leaves to dig into sticky rice rich with coconut milk or sausage, or ducking into a colorful tent to greet a chef sporting a jaunty hat, DuyAn and Hieu Le of Het Say tend to make an impression. The cool pop-up out of East San Jose has been making dramatic appearances for a couple of years now, as one of the best Vietnamese eateries in the Bay Area, per the SF Chronicle and KQED. But this creative couple doesn’t exactly serve the usual pho that local diners tend to expect. They’re helping to introduce the Bay to a more regional understanding of Vietnamese cuisine, by serving their favorite dishes and flavors of the Mekong River Delta, reimagined with a touch of theatrical flair.
DuyAn was born and raised near the ocean in the town of Gò Công, in the abundant Mekong Delta in Southwest Vietnam. While Hieu was born in the mountains in Tây Ninh, then moved to the states when he was eight years old, growing up in Sacramento in the 90s. The two met while visiting friends and family in Toronto, when DuyAn was just 20 years old, and Hieu in his late twenties. He proposed marriage within three days, and when she accepted, immediately freaked out. “I thought, what am I doing, the words just slipped out!” Hieu says. But after getting married in Vietnam, the life partners hopped a couple of times down the Peninsula, before finally settling happily in the Little Saigon neighborhood of East San Jose. There the immigrant community helps it feel like home. “Going to this area, it just feels right!” Hieu says. “It feels familiar,” DuyAn agrees, who originally imagined her mom would come stay, and wanted her to feel comfortable walking to the market.
Hieu still works in tech sales, and DuyAn's whole family is in medicine, but both were drawn to restaurants. During college, Hieu cooked at a few spots in Sacramento, including the acclaimed Lemon Grass, under chef and author Mai Pham. While DuyAn did a short stint working at an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto. They dabbled in a couple of pop-up dinners for family and friends in 2016 and 2017. But it wasn’t until DuyAn's mother suffered a stroke, that lit a fire in their bellies. “We kept putting it off, saying let’s do it later,” DuyAn says. “And then when my mom got sick — it was like, oh my gosh, life is short.” They finally and officially launched Het Say in 2019, with a name that means “that’s awesome.” Early pop-ups were savory breakfasts at the now closed Thanh Lan banh mi shop on the corner (where our founder Amanda Nguyen went growing up!). And soon they pitched a colorful tent at a couple of farmers’ markets, expanding the menu to heat-and-eat comforts during the pandemic.
But wherever they pop up, the line that thrills through is that they’re pulling deep from the Mekong Delta, where the river spills into the sea, casting a net of smaller streams rich in farming and fishing. “We haven’t seen a restaurant specifically focused on that region,” Hieu says. “Vietnam is a big country. Every city has a dish and specialty.” Growing up in NorCal, Hieu has happily eaten at many Vietnamese restaurants with immigrant families working hard to meet broad expectations with steaming bowls of pho. But he tasted them again fresh when DuyAn arrived with strong preferences based on her specific taste memories. For their regional focus, the flavor foundation is fermented fish, which they source and ferment themselves, and people either reminisce or marvel at the flavor. “They love the bitter, sweet, savory, butteriness of the fermented fish,” Hieu says. The couple sources freshwater river fish, the “world’s best” ST25 rice (named after the city of Sóc Trăng), and unrefined palm sugar, coffee, chocolate, and more specifically from the Mekong Delta. Fresh produce and fragrant herbs are local from California, and crisp rolls and buttery croissants are hyper local from the immigrant-run bakeries of East San Jose.
The menu swaps out often, but the fan favorite at the farmers’ market is the sticky rice, a sweet or savory breakfast wrapped in banana leaves, either rich with coconut cream or salty with duck egg sausage. The banh mi is also a lunchtime hit, and Hieu recommends the braised and chopped caramelized pork belly packed in warm. Through Pastel, they offer comforting rice porridges, sometimes topped with buttery chicken liver, crackling chicken skin, fried shallots, and fresh herbs. Don’t miss the homemade pantry staples, from the dried shrimp chile oil to the lap cheong sausages. Surprisingly or not, the bestseller is the chocolate cookie. “There is no such thing as a cookie in Vietnam!” DuyAn exclaims, with the exception of crisp butter cookies. But these are as thick as an American drop cookie and fudgy as a brownie, and studded with big hunks of Vietnamese artisanal chocolate — either bittersweet (70%) or straight bitter (100%), they’re for serious dark chocolate lovers.
All of these dishes are presented with a touch of drama, inspired by the cải lương genre of folk opera, known for its vibrant colors and expressive storytelling. DuyAn has always loved to dress up, and she mixes and matches traditional Vietnamese and retro American garments, from floral dresses to three-piece suits, and never goes out without a hat. Hieu borrows some of the same confidence, as she encourages him to embrace flowy trousers. “You can feel the swagger,” Hieu says. “When the breeze is flowing through, and you’re owning it.” At the farmers’ market, they hang colorful banners displaying a horse and a dog, to transform the tent into a stage. They like to imagine the pop-up as a traveling theater troupe, caravaning from town to town, and performing in the fields.
The latest news is that the caravan will be popping up at Mister Jiu’s on Friday, May 27. Het Say is taking over Moongate Lounge, that second-story cocktail bar in the heart of historic SF Chinatown, and it’s hard to imagine a more illuminating setting. The concept is a “nhâm nhi” or “a Vietnamese way to relax while hanging out with your homies,” Hieu explains. Which means an a la carte menu, so you could order cocktails and snacks or a full meal. By popular demand, they’ll be bringing out the “bangers,” including grilled sausages with salted duck eggs, sticky rice topped with pork belly, braised banana ice cream, and more. All of their friends have been asking, “What are you going to wear?!” DuyAn is still deciding, but she’s imagining a silky traditional tunic and possibly a top hat. Reservations are currently available, so catch one while you can. Come hungry, come thirsty, and dress sharp.
Het Say is available at the Rose Garden Farmers’ Market in North San Jose on Saturdays, the Cupertino Farmers’ Market on Sundays, and will be popping up at the Moongate Lounge at Mister Jiu’s on Friday, May 27. Or for neighborhood pickup through Pastel across the Bay Area.