Since taking over the Lagoon Restaurant last September, new owners Kia Her and Kale Pham have given the longtime Capitol area fixture at 540 Rice Street, St. Paul a whole new look.
Lagoon is known as an authentic Vietnamese restaurant that also carries an American Chinese menu. The original owners, the Dang family, were known for their popular Hot & Spicy Chicken. Pham said that customers missed the dish and that it had not been recreated by successive owners over the past few years.
Pham called up the Dang’s, now retired in Texas, and said they talked him through the original recipe and that customers have since responded by making it one of the more popular entrees along with the pho, vermicelli and rice platter dishes.
Pham said the couple bought the restaurant for his parents – Chefs Chi and Yung Le – both former restaurant owners in North Minneapolis, and were also cooks at Quang and Pho Tau Bay.
As a teenager Pham recalled that he and his brother were too young and inexperienced to be much help at the family Chinese takeout restaurant. He said now that they have been educated and much more experience in running a business they wanted to help their parents realize the dream of running their own place again.
“My little brother and I work here and everybody helps out,” said Pham, who also continues working as a manager with Columbia in Minneapolis.
The Lagoon restaurant is an old building that dates back to the 1920s when it was a tavern, according to Pham. It has since been the 540 Club and was converted to a restaurant about 30 years ago when the bars on the street began to disappear, according to what long time residents tell him.
The restaurant has aged and required a lot of updating, said Pham. He believed in the potential of the area and wanted to be in a place that attracts the working class neighborhood and is walking distance to nearby government and medical buildings.
“The Lagoon has an established clientele and just needs some tender loving care to bring it back where it has to be,” he said, noting that an it is economically preferable as a start up to take over an existing business than to open a new one.
The difference now is noticeable at first glance when walking through the front door. Glass dividers offer a straight path to the main counter, separating the dining room into two sections.
The old carpet is replaced with a laminated wood floor. The chairs are refurbished. The walls are painted in bright pastels with the original artwork of co owner Kia Her.
Pham said this gives a formal space for better flow coming in and out – without making it too stuffy or costly for the locals. There were once enough tables to seat 75 in the dining room. Now, around 56 can be seated comfortably.
“It looks uncluttered and feels more comfortable, warm and inviting to be here,” he said.
They pieced together new furniture to create a new counter space. Chi Pham put together the traditional Buddhist items that are familiar to Vietnamese restaurants behind the cashier area. It is modern but comfortable, said Pham, as he wants it to fit in with residents that want the Chinese menu, but at the same time he works promote the joy of their Vietnamese specialty.
“It is difficult to get people to try new things,” he said.
Pham said times are tough and that he cannot assume the regulars will just keep coming in unless the menu remains “affordable and relevant – evolving with the trends.”
“People want to pay a decent price for a great meal,” he added.
He said they don’t like to do too much prep in advance to ensure they are using fresh vegetables and ingredients each day. That limits the menu but he said the daily lunch specials keep the customers pleased.
They use ingredients from the local growers and like that they are supporting the local community. Even the fresh fruit smoothies have been popular ever since the restaurant opened
“Everything is better fresh,” he added.
The family restaurant is surprisingly diverse. Brother-in-law Sam Vilaysack has a Laotian background, and manager Chantra Ol is Cambodian.
“Lagoon is still the Lagoon – but it’s the new Lagoon,” said Ol. “The ambience has changed.”
They change is partly due to the principles of feng shui.
The restaurant hire a family friend, Mrs. Thanh, who reportedly has done work to plan the layouts of several area restaurants. The restaurant has plants, water, dragons, bamboo and even pictures of money. Ol said this is bringing a spirit of wealth and happiness inside the restaurant.
“The color scheme is the same way,” he added.
Ol said future plans include lighting and front-end improvements to attract more of the dinner crowd.
Another change to attract more types of people is to offer free WiFi connection for guests with laptops. They have a large flat screen digital television that Ol said attracts the sports fans on weekends. They are perhaps enjoying the Vietnamese coffee, real fruit smoothies and bubble tea.
The menu standouts are the five varieties of Banh mi sandwiches and spring rolls – which come in beef, pork chicken and mock duck tofu varieties. The cream cheese wontons popular as well.
The popular entrees include the Vermicelli rice noodle salad with choice of grilled meat, seafood or vegetarian, and the rice platter dishes, Com Tam Vien, with similar options. Pham said the special seasoning and sauce is topped with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and pickled carrots.
He said the pho is also popular and that the special pho is just a dollar more for the larger bowl that contains everything that comes in the other pho options, Vietnamese sausage, beef and meatballs, chicken, tripe and tendons, seafood and vegetables.
“We don’t use MSG,” said Pham. “We get the flavor elsewhere with other ingredients.”
Pham said they like to cater to the vegetarians, whether strict or just those wanting a healthier meal. The new menu offers options to special dietary needs with different types of soy sauce, and chicken or vegetable broth substitutions for beef and pork.
With two visits to speak with management and owners, there were three customers that were quick to volunteer their praises for the restaurant. One couple that runs a business on Como Avenue, said they have had most everything on the menu and liked it all.
Another customer said he lives nearby and likes to come on his own or with his two children to have the tofu dishes and what he called “fresh spring rolls that are still priced for poor people.”
Lagoon also delivers within a five mile radius and can handle large order catering with a couple days advance notice. The restaurant is open weekdays from 10-5, and weekends from 11-6. Call 651-292-1351 or visit online at www.lagoon-restaurant.com.