As explosive as the Santa Cruz food scene has become in recent years, one genre remains largely untapped, and that is the art of Vietnamese cuisine. Considering the booming Vietnamese culture in San Jose, the lack of representation on this side of the hill is a bit baffling.
That's where siblings Keven and My Nguyen come in.
In 2010, the Nguyens, who came to the United States from Vietnam 20 years ago, opened on 41st Avenue in Capitola. After over a decade in the family business in San Jose (a 5,000 square foot Asian restaurant with over 200 menu items), they saw the need for a simple establishment to give Santa Cruz its pho fix.
"We try to do simple stuff here," Keven Nguyen, 39, told Patch. "We're trying to do small and simple like , but we're also Vietnamese."
Take two steps into Asian Express and you see the standard fare in front of you (orange chicken, lo mein, etc.). But take a look to your right, where the menu board rests on the wall, and you see the Nguyens' true vision. There lies a mix of Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, including the ever-popular pho, which Keven Nguyen calls "the best in town."
The fact that Vietnamese food is rare in Santa Cruz County is one thing, but the menu at Asian Express also boasts items that are impossible to find anywhere else at all, thanks to Nguyen's culinary creativity.
"We had to create different dishes to make new people come, so we had to design food," he said.
That exercise in design led to the creation of several specialty soups, the best of which, according to Nguyen, is the wonton barbecue spicy pork soup (number 21 on the menu).
"I love when people eat what I create," he said. "I want my customers to come here and try something new. That makes me happy because I made it. If you come and eat pho, I'm not as happy because that's regular. You can eat that anywhere."
By filling a need and going the extra mile with the menu, Asian Express has quickly proven a smart business decision.
"Everybody is happy. This is very successful. We're always busy. We never stop working," Nguyen said. "We just opened another Asian Express in San Jose four months ago and we think we'll put one in Santa Cruz next. Of course the economy is bad, but with no other Vietnamese restaurants, we can do it. We're confident we'll make it."
But it's not just the demand. It's about quality, too.
"Everybody can make soup," he said. "But my soup is not like theirs."
Have you been to Asian Express? What did you think? Tell us in the comments!