Pho saved his life. Now he serves it and pizza in his restaurant empire

Pho saved his life. Now he serves it and pizza in his restaurant empire
via Zalat Pizza / LinkedIn, Instagram
Carl Samson
25 days ago
The path to success for renowned Texas restaurateur Khanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese American immigrant, has been guided by two savory dishes: one saved his life as a child and the other sets his business apart from others.

Saved by the bowl

As Saigon fell in 1975 — marking the end of the Vietnam War — a serendipitous incident involving a bowl of pho inadvertently saved Nguyen and his family from returning to the South Vietnamese capital, where certain death awaited his father. This pivotal moment not only led to their eventual resettlement in the U.S., but also instilled in him a deep sense of connection to Vietnamese cuisine.
  • While preparing to leave a convent in a coastal city and return to Saigon, a bowl of pho spilled on Nguyen’s uncle, causing a delay as he went to clean up. This prevented his father, a general in the Vietnamese army, and their family from departing immediately, Nguyen told D Magazine in a recent interview.
  • During his uncle’s absence, barricades were erected on the road back to Saigon, and the family was advised against returning due to the country’s fall. This advice led them to abandon their plans to return.
  • The delay prevented the family from returning to a perilous situation. They encountered troop carriers the following day, leading to their rescue by an American battleship and their resettlement in the U.S.
  • This experience later inspired Nguyen to enter the restaurant industry. In 2012, he opened DaLat, a Vietnamese restaurant named after his home province, specializing in pho and other Vietnamese dishes.

Venturing into pizza

Driven by his passion for food and culinary exploration, Nguyen transitioned from working in corporate law and software sales to launching his own restaurants, eventually specializing on pizza. Despite no prior experience in the restaurant business, his entrepreneurial spirit and self-learning approach paved the way for his success in the industry.
  • After his successful launch of DaLat, Nguyen entered the pizza business with Zalat Pizza in 2015. In a 2020 interview with the Dallas Observer, he said it all started when a pizza restaurant beside DaLat closed down. Intrigued by the opportunity, he decided to take over the space and venture into pizza-making.
  • Nguyen spent months experimenting with pizza recipes, focusing on perfecting the dough’s hydration levels and crafting a unique sauce. Zalat quickly distinguished itself with its inventive menu, led by the “Pho Shizzle,” which incorporates Vietnamese flavors.
  • Zalat, which has since expanded to 32 branches across Texas, also embraced a “stoner pizza joint” reference, owing to its late-night operating hours that see after-club crowds, service industry workers and stoners as regulars. “Once March starts rolling around, everybody starts asking us what this year’s 4/20 pizza is going to be,” he told Eater in 2021.

Elevating employees

Nguyen’s restaurant empire places a strong emphasis on holistic employee welfare. His initiatives focus on health, financial well-being, recognition and a sense of community.
  • Nguyen provides Zalat workers health benefits and insurance options. In a move to align their interests with the company’s success, he also offers them stock and equity options. This not only serves as a financial incentive but fosters a sense of ownership and partnership among the employees.
  • Nguyen also created a comic book that featured employees as superheroes. This creative endeavor highlights his approach to making employees feel valued and recognized as integral parts of the company’s story and success.
  • Showing a deep sense of loyalty and belonging, many employees opt to get a Zalat tattoo after their first year. This tradition highlights the strong community and culture that Nguyen has nurtured within the company.
  • As a visionary leader and mentor, Nguyen earned the nickname “Morpheus,” based on the character from “The Matrix” film series.
Nguyen’s story is marked by a journey of survival, a knack for innovation and a deep-rooted appreciation for the communities that back his ventures. Beyond pho and pizza, his success lies in building a legacy that celebrates cultural heritage, entrepreneurial tenacity and the power of a supportive community.
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