“I like to trick people!” Mai Nguyen gleefully jokes in the newly opened second location of Âu Lạc Restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles. Mai is the founder of Âu Lạc, a vegan restaurant serving plant-based variations of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Using only natural and organic ingredients, Âu Lạc’s promotion of good food and healthy eating has been met with great success.
Although Âu Lạc’s first location opened in Fountain Valley in 1997, its story truly begins when Mai was a college student in Texas. Mai Nguyen had come to the United States as a refugee from war-torn Vietnam. Amazed by the availability of meat in America, Mai developed a love for beef and steak. Unfortunately, with her meat-based diet came serious health problems. A cancerous tumor was later discovered in her brain. Mai underwent taxing surgeries while desperately praying for her life. Trying anything to overcome her illness, she completely changed her diet, and after her long battle with cancer, Mai miraculously recovered. She credits her recovery to dropping meat and adopting a healthier, vegetarian diet. Through her journey, she realized that “scientifically, spiritually, we should not be meat eaters at all.”
From such hardship blossomed the inspiration for Âu Lạc. Mai became determined to use her life experiences to benefit others. Despite lacking prior restaurateur experience, Mai founded Âu Lạc with the mission of convincing people that eating a healthy plant-based diet can be just as delicious as a meat-based one. Indeed, Âu Lạc succeeds in creating incredibly flavorful vegan dishes while tricking the tongue. Whether it be their Chicken Phở or Salt and Peppered Shrimp, all meat served at Âu Lạc is soy-based. Mai explains, “I wanted to duplicate traditional Vietnamese cooking to prove to the outside people that we are not addicted with meat, but that we are addicted with the technique of cooking that covers up [our food].” Mai’s vision for providing tasty plant-based cuisine attracted not only foodies, but food experts as well. In 2001, Chef Ito joined Âu Lạc and introduced raw, unprocessed dishes to the menu.
Amidst all of Âu Lạc’s developments, its original inspiration stays the same: health. Mai shares that through their menu, they encourage the prevention of health problems. By consuming vegan and raw/uncooked foods, people can lower their cholesterol, provide more varied nutrients to their bodies, strengthen their immune systems, and even help cure their illnesses. “You can be your own doctor!” declares Mai.
The mission towards healthy eating has also influenced Mai’s daughter, Linh. In fact, with her passion for Âu Lạc’s vision, Linh brought the restaurant’s new second location to Downtown LA. Originally, Linh intended to become a doctor practicing Western medicine, but realized this was not her path. Strongly believing in the holistic approach that cured her own mother, and being vegan herself, Linh became determined to participate in the movement towards healthy eating and food awareness. She ended up studying business instead and has evidently put her skills to good use in expanding Âu Lạc from a mom-and-pop shop in Fountain Valley to a trendy downtown restaurant in LA. Although opening a second location has been a long process, Linh shares with sincerity, “It’s really been a dream for my mom and for Chef Ito. Then, for me to come in and be able to help out and spread my skill set within a realm that I truly believe in and practice myself, I felt that it was a good fit. I feel really blessed that we were able to make it out here.”
A restaurant fueled by passion, Âu Lạc is truly a success story built from the ground up. From such hardship, Mai created a delicious way to enjoy healthy plant-based foods. Sharing her vision with not only Chef Ito and Linh, but also the public, Âu Lạc continues to change lifestyles.
Look forward to plant-based traditional Vietnamese cuisine at Âu Lạc Restaurant in Fountain Valley and Los Angeles. In addition, be sure to try the Grilled Fish, an interactive dish shared between four people. Consisting of rice paper, pineapple dip, and romaine lettuce wraps with Vietnamese mint, this traditional Vietnamese dish showcases unique flavors and textures that exemplify, as Linh puts it, “food bringing each other together.” As Âu Lạc continues to grow, Linh expresses that she does not want it to be categorized as a ‘vegan’ restaurant, but as a restaurant everyone can enjoy. Bringing joy and happiness to customers is so important, in fact, that Âu Lạc’s Los Angeles location even hosts a 1920’s-themed burlesque show called “Blind Tiger” presented by Harlow Gold. You can check out their homepage at AuLac.com for more info about each location and to view the calendar of shows.