At Cong Tu Bot, Vien Dobui sets his own standard for Vietnamese food
After working for specialty coffee roaster Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco and New York City, eight years ago California native Vien Dobui moved to Portland to help open Tandem Coffee Roasters. In July 2017 he and his wife, Jessica Sheahan, launched what may be Maine’s most iconoclastic restaurant, Cong Tu Bot, in a spartan yet colorful space on Portland’s Washington Avenue. The restaurant’s soulful, whimsical Vietnamese dishes have since been praised in Bon Appetit and the Washington Post among others, and just a year after the restaurant opened, Dobui garnered a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef: Northeast. None of the attention has diverted Dobui’s focus from making food that is delicious and fun.
What was your inspiration to open a restaurant?
My interest in coffee was always more culinary: understand your ingredients, know where they come from and how to affect them. As the trainer for Blue Bottle’s restaurant coffee program in San Francisco, I was always peeking over into the kitchen while I was training the bar staff and servers, and as I learned more about coffee, I also felt like I was learning more about restaurants and food. And at the same I was doing a lot of cooking on my own and started volunteering in kitchens just to see if I liked the work, because I always liked cooking more than I liked making coffee.
How did you decide what kind of restaurant yours was going to be?
I always knew it was going to serve pho, which was elemental to me in my upbringing and my identity. I also knew I wanted it to be small. Before we opened, we did a couple of pop-ups, serving just one noodle soup. What I liked about coffee was that it focused on one thing, because I have a tendency to obsess about the details. I went to Vietnam and worked in my family’s noodle stall, where my uncle has been making one kind of noodles and one noodle soup for 30 years; every little detail has been considered and thought out. In some ways our menu is much bigger than I ever thought it would be, but compared to most restaurants it’s still pretty small. We try to ask ourselves a lot of questions about why we do things a certain way. I picked that up with coffee, and it translates nicely to what we’re doing here.
How did you find the right people to cook this food?
I feel like I got lucky, but my wife, Jessica, and I have also tried to foster a culture where people want to work, and now we’re fortunate enough to have a staff that enjoys working here. We provide paid sick leave, flexible scheduling, and an environment that’s not toxic, and we have very low turnover. I also reached out through student job programs. I spent some time volunteering as a tutor at local high schools, because honestly, as a person of color who moved here from somewhere else, I was looking for more diversity, and I saw how diverse the student population was.
After pho, what’s your next most popular dish?
In addition to our regular menu, we have daily specials, two of which are really interesting to me. One is stir-fried bread—sourdough focaccia that my kitchen manager makes—which we serve on Thursdays. We chop the bread up into cubes, then we stir-fry it and smear a chili-lemongrass-tomato sauce on it, we put some chickpea mayo over that, carrot- daikon pickles, beef jerky that we make, cut-up Maine red hot dogs, and cilantro. It’s basically nachos. It’s a reference to a dish that was popular in Saigon a few years ago. I like showing that Vietnamese food is not static. On Mondays, our special is chicken and rice; many Southeast Asian cultures have a version of this dish. Where my family is from the rice is tossed in turmeric, so it gets really yellow, and with lots of chicken fat. The chicken is poached in aromatics, and the dish is served with fish sauce with an insane amount of ginger in it. We serve it for two people: a half a poached chicken with the rice and an egg yolk on top, chicken salad, broth, and a sesame rice cracker. It’s a big feast with a ton of garnishes, and I’m really excited about it because it sounds like something so basic—chicken and rice—but it pulls on all the heartstrings.
Cong Tu Bot is so different from other Vietnamese restaurants. Was that intentional?
I haven’t been to a Vietnamese restaurant like this anywhere in the country. I like knocking people out of their comfort zone because that opens you up to trying new things. There’s a word in Vietnamese that someone used to describe me once—bui—which translates literally as “dusty,” but it’s a compliment. It means effortless and relaxed, but not totally put together; I’m not trying to be so tight with my aesthetic. I think the stir-fried bread has that ethos, too.
What has been the biggest surprise for you as a restaurant owner?
The national attention. I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think it would be successful, but I just didn’t know we would get this kind of attention at all. That first year when we got a James Beard Award nomination, I was at Hannaford buying hot dogs for one of our dishes, and I saw on my phone, “You’ve been nominated for a James Beard Award,” and I stopped for a second with a package of red hot dogs in one hand and my phone with that message in the other, and I thought, “This doesn’t make any sense at all.” I’m glad, because it helps support what we’re doing, but I still don’t get it.