For five years, I wasn't allowed to order at Saigon Le. Tuyen Le, who waited tables there, wouldn't let me. Instead, Tuyen brought me whatever she was having.
It was wonderful: noodle dishes, curries, and soups that somehow reached beyond the expansive menu and into what was for me uncharted culinary territory. Tuyen would explain that this was traditional Vietnamese cuisine the way it's prepared in her native Vietnam and that it was different from anything that Memphis had to offer. I was taken with the amplified sour, sweet, and salty flavors of the dishes she prepared.
In early March, she called to tell me she had left Saigon Le to open her own restaurant, one with a menu overflowing with traditional dishes.
At least once a month, Tuyen would call asking if I'd like to stop by her house to try a few dishes she was considering for the menu. She showed me inlaid chopsticks and beautiful glazed serving bowls, made in the shape of the lotus flower, which she had bought in Vietnam to use in the restaurant. And she told me about how determined she was to find the perfect location — the space in East Memphis was too small; the building in Midtown, too expensive. Then one day, she said she had found the perfect space in Collierville and handed me a business card. It read "New Que Huong": new homeland.
On June 15th, the day Tuyen opened the doors of New Que Huong, the place was full of energy. Tuyen's youngest daughter Lily paraded around with an "open" sign she'd made using a box top and markers. Buddhist monk Nguyen Tanh arrived with flowers as Tuyen filled a table with dish after dish: smoke-tinged noodles with snow peas, crispy lemongrass tofu, egg rolls, fresh spring rolls, spicy dipping sauces, and pickled vegetable salad.
New Que Huong's menu can be overwhelming. The dishes are numbered up to 116, and there are still seven more pages of choices after that. I like the Goi Rong Bien (seaweed salad), but there are a few other salads to choose from. Also recommended is the tofu with curry, with its overtones of lemongrass and mint. (Shrimp and beef are also available under the special "Vietnamese Dishes" section of the menu.) Lastly, try one of the many Vietnamese hot and sour soups. Pineapple, okra, and tomato are suspended in a light broth along with fragrant mint and crunchy bean sprouts. Choose catfish, shrimp, chicken, or a great vegetarian version with chunks of tofu.
On my last visit to the restaurant, I sat in a booth near the door because I wanted to watch people's expressions as they tried this food for the first time. Tuyen welcomed me, slid into the booth, and lightly punched me in the arm, her standard greeting for me.
She told me how proud she is that she's opened the business on her own, and I asked her about the significance of the name New Que Houng. "You always remember your homeland," she explained with her hand over her heart.
As Tuyen disappeared into the kitchen, her daughter Huyen exclaimed, "I don't know why you're even looking at the menu" and snatched the bound volume from my hands. This is familiar. I settle in, feeling very much at home.