Tommy Nguyen & The Pearl: The Best of Growing Up

Food: Interviews & Features

For Tommy Nguyen, owning a restaurant with his own curated menu didn’t always seem like a possibility. Once a high school dropout working at a Denny’s in Utah County, he eventually made his way to Salt Lake City, where he found opportunities working in the city’s food scene: He rolled sushi at Takashi for 16 years, helped open restaurants such as Rye and the Post Office Place and was a part of developing the taco program at Alibi. With years of experience and hard work under his belt, Nguyen is now co-owner and head chef of one of SLC’s newest 21+ restaurants, The Pearl.

Carmelized Pork Belly with Egg is Chef Nguyen’s authentic savory, tender dish that is sure to warm the heart.
Photo: Talyn Behzad

Located in the Central Ninth neighborhood, The Pearl serves Vietnamese-style cuisine based on Nguyen’s culinary repertoire and the food he grew up eating. “I’ve always wanted to pay homage to my mom’s cooking,” Nguyen says. “Growing up, I always thought her food tasted better than the restaurants we ate at.” She also helped him develop the restaurant’s recipes when they opened this past spring. Nguyen prepared me the best of The Pearl’s opening menu, or what he calls “my best of growing up.”

“I resurrected the soft scramble that I used to serve over at Rye. Simple, but delicious.”

First, he offers the Soft Scrambled Eggs ($9) served with a Vietnamese baguette made by Stone Ground Bakery and a side of house-made chili sauce. “I resurrected the soft scramble that I used to serve over at Rye,” he says. “Simple, but delicious.”

I eat the eggs on the toast, adding drops of the chili sauce to each bite to give it a bit more heat. The eggs are soft and fluffy, like eating a celestial cloud, blending well with the baguette that offers a firm, satisfying crunch. Paired with the Soft Scrambled Eggs is the Ca Phe ($13), a take on traditional Vietnamese coffee, “but in boozy-cocktail form,” says Nguyen. It’s a light, sweet cocktail with pleasant tones of cinnamon and cardamom.

My second dish is the Caramel Pork Belly with Egg ($14), which requires 12 hours of braising, but I see why it’s worth the wait after my first bite. There is a sublime blend of pork and fat that melts in my mouth, the white rice base offering a canvas for the egg, green onions and togarashi that permeates with the pork. “I remember coming home from school on cold days and smelling this,” he says. “It has such a distinct smell to it.” However, he admits he has changed the dish up a bit since having it as a kid: “Normally, this would be done with pork shoulder. To modernize it, I do pork belly!”

“I’ve always wanted to pay homage to my mom’s cooking.”

The Pearl’s original cocktail, Ca Phe, is a boozy spin on traditional Vietnamese coffee.
Photo: Talyn Behzad

His final dish is especially close to his heart, Kim’s Egg Rolls ($8). He believes this is a dish his mom always makes best and that there is no better place to find them than at home. He suggests wrapping them in lettuce with the herbs and vegetables before dipping the roll into fish sauce. With my first bite, I notice how crispy, light and fresh the rolls are. As Nguyen advertised, they are unlike any egg rolls I have had before. “To make them look this pretty, you have to squeeze all the moisture out of them,” he explains. “That alone takes like 30–40 minutes to squeeze all the vegetables completely dry before mixing it with the browned pork.” Not only do Nguyen’s dishes at The Pearl taste great, but one can tell he’s put a lot of love, effort and detail into his cooking, which goes a long way.

Be sure to visit Chef Nguyen and The Pearl before he decides to change up the menu this spring. To keep up with Nguyen and his latest iterations of the menu, you can follow The Pearl on Instagram @thepearlslc.

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