Sen Organic co-owner Andy Nguyen is bringing his Buddha Bowls to the former home of Dixie Donuts. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Sen Organic is bringing a taste of Vietnam and France to Carytown. Just don't call it fusion.
"We still have a lot of French [influence]," co-owner Hang Pham says of her home country. "Most of the most popular Vietnamese food comes from France, like pho or Vietnamese coffee. We want to bring the concept, and some history."
The small-plate restaurant, situated in the former Dixie Donuts space at 2901 W. Cary St., serves up organic, gluten-free and vegan Vietnamese food, a cuisine heavily influenced by French colonists, traders and missionaries from the 17th century on. Don't be surprised to see traditional French items get a little dose of Vietnamese flavor; there's fish sauce and turmeric in the restaurant's pâté, for instance. In the tartlets, chicken gets a dip in a fish sauce marinade before mingling with cilantro and stir-fried garlic.
"What you taste in my restaurant will be the same taste as in Vietnam. Here, you have to have a real taste of herbal, the spice," says Pham, who noticed a need for gluten-free and vegan meals in the neighborhood while she was working in the spa across the street. "Being in Carytown, you have to have a specialty; people feel very picky. You have to have real food. With me, I want to bring real Vietnamese food to the people. And people in Carytown love organic."
Pham runs the restaurant with her husband, Andy Nguyen, who began working in restaurants when he was 15, and her mother, Thuy. Pham learned to cook at home, taught by her grandmother, who was born in Vietnam while it was still under French occupation. Nguyen, conversely, grew up in a restaurant family; his parents owned four or five back in Vietnam, and Nguyen himself owned Nanin, a restaurant here in Richmond in the early '90s. He worked in his siblings' Richmond restaurant, Hunan, in the late '90s as well. "Cooking is a passion for me," he says. "Always has been, since I was a little kid growing up."
The pair source many of their vegetables from Rudy's Exotic Mushrooms and Produce, and their organic, non-GMO chicken from Polyface Farms. All seafood on the menu is wild-catch only, as opposed to farm-raised, and when it comes to stocking up on organic goods such as butter, they turn to Whole Foods — though they hope to work with Ellwood Thompson's soon. "I want to support local," Pham shares. "That's a priority."
"It's been very good," she says of business thus far. "A lot of people have come back already, some people five times. It makes me so happy, especially when I see the bowl comes back and everything is empty."
Sen Organic is located at 2901 W. Cary St. and is open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 5 to 10 p.m.; and Friday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.