A young restaurant group creates the best restaurants in Orange County

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If you’re looking for the most exciting cluster of restaurants in Orange County, try the intersection of Brookhurst Street and Edinger Avenue in Fountain Valley. The bustling square bustles with traffic from daytime until late at night, but Kei Concepts’ collection of restaurants – powered by chef and co-founder Viet Nguyen – is its heart. The chef lovingly refers to their ever-expanding strip mall as the “jewel in the crown of Little Saigon,” a place already well known for its community reach and great food.

There are several restaurants under the Kei umbrella in this plaza alone, and together Nguyen and the larger team at Kei Concepts aim to transform the way Orange County eats. Collectively, the group runs six unique brands and a rather famous franchise, with at least five other projects underway in Southern California – including Italian fusion cuisine, a high-end coffee shop, a seasoning line and a hot combined pot/dim sum.

Born in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen, 35, has spent most of his life loving restaurants of all kinds, from industrial kitchens and pho shops in the San Gabriel Valley to Momofuku-owned brand restaurants. to David Chang. Early in his career, he spent time selling restaurant point-of-sale technology and moonlighting in kitchens like Gordon Ramsay’s closed Fat Cow in Los Angeles, before turning to his roots to find inspiration and find it in a bowl of broth and quality noodles.

In 2014, Nguyen pooled his resources to open the original Súp Noodle Bar in Buena Park (along with co-founders Neo Du, Ivy Ha and Edward Huang), in an effort to help recalibrate the city’s already robust pho scene. Orange County. Súp’s fusion cuisine features upturned bowls filled with Flintstone-braised beef rib bones protruding from the steaming broth. Here, the noodles are limitless, the fried rice is accompanied by pan-fried bits of spam and numbing ají, and the dining room vibrates with a youthful energy that permeates the staff. This sentiment has become a signature for Kei Concepts, with calibrated service standards that set them apart from comparable noodle houses.

Spicy wontons.

A photo of a bowl of soup with eggs and assorted toppings at a new restaurant.

Crab congee.

A wide shot of crispy shrimp on yellow noodles.

Garlic noodles with prawns.

By 2017, Súp Noodle Bar had expanded to Cerritos (that short-term location closed three years later) and, in 2020, to Irvine. During the same period, Nguyen, building on his early success with younger, often Asian and American audiences in Orange County, opened Vox Kitchen in Fountain Valley. His menu included planked 30-ounce ribeye, crab congee nuanced with enoki mushrooms and pork brittle, and juicy golden pears over greens that converted arugula naysayers with a lemon vinaigrette. Champagne. The mall space stacked with diners in the narrow front room and adjoining corner patio, with a view of the glass-encased kitchen. In September of that year, CO register critic Brad A. Johnson called it one of the hottest restaurants in the area.

From there, Kei Concepts kept rolling, translating public feedback into new restaurants and dollars through the door. “I don’t think we can throw it all together and have Vox again,” Nguyen says of the explosive growth. The need for an upscale atmosphere and booze led to 2019’s Gem Dining in Fountain Valley, a nod to the Gemini star sign shared between Nguyen and co-founder Neo Du, as well as a continuation of the Kei Concepts signature three-letter restaurant nicknames. The progressive Southeast Asian experience is more refined but still very much in the Kei mould, designed to hide in plain sight from the outside. Inside, the room comes alive from the show kitchen. There are sight lines from every table, cooks catching the eye as diners sip cocktails and munch on Chilean sea bass drenched in bacon miso broth.

Kei’s team soon expanded into franchise opportunities, signing for a Dave’s Hot Chicken in Fountain Valley and developing a Taiwan-based bubble tea company called The Alley in Southern California. The first Alley location opened next to Gem Dining in October 2019, the second at the Irvine Spectrum on February 15, 2020. Less than three weeks later, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency as the first response to the fast-spread of the new coronavirus. On March 15, restaurants in Orange County were to cut occupancy in half, while bars and wineries were to close completely to reduce social gatherings. The sudden shutdowns left tens of thousands of restaurant workers out of work virtually overnight and left Nguyen and his team with mounting pressures (and debt) as the days stretched into weeks.

By summer 2020, Kei Concepts was losing over $40,000 per month. The group had laid off hundreds of workers, unable to keep them employed in its current structure. There were simply too few hours, too few brands and too few customers for it to work. So, despite being self-funded from the start, Nguyen and Kei’s team decided to take a bold step to a new group of investors during a global public health crisis: investing $10 million to ensure the future of a booming Vietnamese restaurant group. in Little Saigon which will include women in key leadership positions and provide long-term employee benefits. The money would go to growth, meaning more restaurants and more jobs. If he built it, Nguyen thought, there would be jobs to fill and families to support.

A wide shot of a thriving evening restaurant with a long kitchen in the back.

Inside Kin Craft Ramen & Izakaya.

Diners lined up against a beige wall in a trendy restaurant.

The first of several restaurants to open was Kin Craft Ramen & Izakaya, which began as a take-out-only pop-up, serving long lines of customers eager for nondescript Orange County cuisine. Due to Kei’s existing fan base, pre-ordered, pre-packaged noodle bowls often sold out within 10 minutes. Diners lacking that noodle house vibe would descend on the pop-up parking lot to eat from a distance or take home to sip. Those early pop-up days were a testing ground for Nguyen, who promised fans brick-and-mortar space and an expanded menu of likeable favorites. At home, he browsed through more than 20 cookbooks to take a closer look at the vast world of ramen, expanding into more unique takes like a laksa ramen than the Register critic called it one of the best things he ate last year. Between takeouts at tea bars, Vox Kitchen and Kin, Kei’s team has been able to move many of its more than 200 staff to run the hours.

Nguyen then explored his Vietnamese roots to fund a breakfast pop-up called Nép Cafe, converting the sidewalk in front of Gem Dining into a makeshift patio. The Franco-Vietnamese menu has worked for the Orange County community and climate; inflated expectations early and often. “Nobody can go back to Vietnam,” Nguyen said at the time, nodding to global travel restrictions, “but now we can do outdoor dining.” The four-hour waits led to roasted bone marrow on orecchiette, or plain, fluffy scrambled eggs on toast. Nép — now its own restaurant and one of the busiest in Orange County — not only functioned as a daytime option for employees seeking hours, but quickly exceeded staffing forecasts entirely. of the group.

In August 2021, the group took a slightly different route, allocating $500,000 for a rebranding of Huntington Beach restaurant The Cure Kitchen & Bar, owned by Nguyen’s longtime friend Lovia. She struggled to stay open, often working alone in the kitchen while watching her daughter through a restaurant camera from the back. Nguyen and the Kei Group built a handroll bar essentially from scratch in just 21 days, taking inspiration from hitmakers like LA’s KazuNori. Rol Hand Roll Bar offers house sauces like a yuzu kosho and truffle soy sauce, a collection of cocktails, those signature rolls as well as an off-menu Big Keeler – an over the top open concoction of fatty tuna, A5 wagyu, Plain Santa Barbara, avocado and caviar. While Kei Concepts manages the day-to-day operations of Rol, Lovia continues to own shares in the brand. The restaurant now has 40 employees and a second location is planned a few doors down from Vox Kitchen in Fountain Valley.

Now, two years into the pandemic and about a year after the opening of Kin and Nép Cafe, Nguyen and the team at Kei Concepts find themselves in a new moment. The group is nearly cash positive and heading into a spring and summer with no mask mandates, vaccine requirements or necessary government or public health safeguards in place. Orange County (which had already taken a more passive approach to the pandemic compared to neighboring Los Angeles County) is wide open and filled with eager diners. Kei Concepts’ constellation of restaurants feels well placed to lead the way.

A team of masked workers making ramen in a restaurant.

In Kin’s kitchen.

Two hands placing ingredients inside a bowl of ramen.

Soft eggs and lots of pork.

An evening shot of the exterior of a tanned restaurant space.

The next Ini Ristorante space across the parking lot.

There are plans to expand Kei Concepts in several new directions, starting with a Japanese-Italian restaurant in Fountain Valley named Ini Ristorante. There will be pasta and wine and an elegant weekend brunch, complete with afternoon tea. A cafe and bakery (called Kei Coffee House) is also in the works and, like many other large groups, home-based products are also planned. Momofuku has its dried noodles and flavored salts; Kei a Sót, a place for seasonings and sauces that run the gamut of the group. A fourth, as-yet-unnamed project nearby teases 10,000 square feet of dim sum, hot pot and daytime drink.

On paper, Kei Concepts is now nearly a dozen different companies led by an energetic leader. In reality, it’s a team effort with hundreds of workers, which is precisely why Nguyen and the team at Kei Concepts decided to open, grow and employ during the pandemic. Nguyen says he’s proud of his Vietnamese heritage and even prouder to be part of a growing Southeast Asian food and beverage group leading the charge in Orange County.

A moving photo of a small cafe at night.

In the dining room of Vox Kitchen.

An evening patio in action with servers and diners at full capacity.

Vox Kitchen’s large patio.

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