Catching up with Tuyen Le of Tuyen’s Asian Bistro
Photography by Chip Chockley
As a child I loved Mary Poppins. Let me clarify: not the movie starring Julie Andrews, but the series of books by P.L. Travers. In these stories, Mary Poppins is full of magic, but never overly sentimental or chatty like some other fictional nannies. She dazzles her young charges—not with bedtime stories but with statues brought to life or gingerbread stars that are hung in the sky with ladders. My recent trip to Tuyen’s Asian Bistro reminded me of this version of Mary Poppins. The magic was in the kitchen and on the plate, and everything else was just idle chitchat. While I do not suspect actual witchcraft is used at this restaurant, the food is a delight to the senses and that is all we really need to know.
Owner Tuyen Le’s family are well-known Memphis figures. Her sister, brothers, and parents arrived from Vietnam in the mid-1980s. Tuyen’s mother first worked for a catering business while she saved money to start a restaurant of her own—Saigon Le. Through the 1980s, ’90s, and into the 2000s, Tuyen’s parents and other family members worked alongside each other to build a dedicated clientele, despite the restaurant closing temporarily because of a fire. The much-beloved restaurant was a fixture on Cleveland Avenue until 2016, when a second fire closed it for good.
As a teenager, Tuyen grew up working in her parents’ restaurant but didn’t grow up loving the kitchen. She has a cosmetology license and didn’t plan to stay with the family business. She came back to restaurants when she wanted to kick a gambling habit.
“I had to find a substitute for gambling. I didn’t know I had a passion for cooking,” she says with a wide smile. “But my lawyer told me I make the best Vietnamese food so I should do that.”
While Saigon Le was a family business, Tuyen’s Asian Bistro—opened in July 2022—is a solo venture, as several family members have died and others are not involved with the restaurant.
“The customers are my family,” Tuyen says.
Tuyen learned kitchen skills from her mother, of course, but she also researches techniques on Google and YouTube. She uses traditional Vietnamese aromatics—garlic, lemongrass, and ginger—and creates traditional or updated dishes around them.
“I see how they cook [online] and watch the chef. Then I cook it my way. It’s the same [ingredients], but I cook it my way,” says Tuyen.
Tuyen and her team work long hours to keep the new restaurant going. She arrives at 7 a.m. and preps food before opening to the public at 10 a.m. After closing for the evening, she may assemble egg rolls for the next day, do a grocery run, or chop garlic. Tuyen’s Asian Bistro is open seven days a week. They don’t take reservations, and the 10 tables are often full. This heavy schedule means that Tuyen doesn’t have much time to cook for herself.
“When I go home, I make instant ramen,” she laughs.
Vietnamese food depends on several techniques to achieve its complex balance of flavors and textures. The seaweed salad Tuyen makes for me contains cucumber batons sliced on a diagonal to maximize surface area for the vinegar sauce, which is made with vinegar and sugar. The richness of peanuts meets the savory softness of shrimp and crab. Fresh herbs add brightness as well as crunch. Even Tuyen’s method of turning the salad with chopsticks, rather than stirring or tossing, demonstrates her focus.
This food has her full attention, and it should have ours as well.
“The other day a lawyer came in here and didn’t know what to order. I brought him chicken with lemongrass and green beans with shiitake mushrooms. He just ate it right up,” says Tuyen.
This type of customer handling is something Tuyen is clearly comfortable with. She’s confident in her skills, and if customers don’t know where to start, she’ll make suggestions or just bring something she thinks they’ll like. Tuyen wants her food eaten at its peak: fresh, just moments off the pan. She seems a little disappointed (though not judgmental) when I have to bring some of my leftovers home and when another customer orders spring rolls to be served at a party several hours later.
The lemongrass tofu is the bistro’s most popular dish. They go through 15 cases (12 containers in each) of tofu per week. The finished product lives up to its billing. Cubes of tofu caramelized on all their lines and corners (never have I wished harder for more corners on a cube) convey subtle sweetness amid the saltiness of the oyster sauce and the brightness of the grated lemongrass. The quick dip in the fry oil has steamed out much of the tofu’s water, leaving it irresistibly chewy. The jalapeño lingers warmly in the mouth even after the last bite has been consumed. The white rice provides a welcome backdrop for the bright flavors.
Though Tuyen’s venture has been an instant success in virtually every way, there is already an end in sight. Tuyen plans to run this restaurant for five years and then retire.
“The lease is for five years, and I’m getting arthritis,” she explains.
This means there is no time to waste in getting to Tuyen’s Asian Bistro and ordering up a little kitchen magic. You’re family there. And this family doesn’t need to sit around and talk about how great the food is; they just need to settle in and eat.
Tuyen’s Asian Bistro
288 N. Cleveland
Heidi Rupke finds pleasure in maintaining the practical skills her grandmothers loved: quilting, gardening, keeping chickens, and cooking from scratch. She enjoys biking around Midtown with her family and will drop everything for a good plate of Japanese-style pickled vegetables. @rupkeheidi
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais, and his wife and kids. @chipchockley