Sa Nguyen wanted nothing to do with cooking growing up in Vung Tàu, a port city located on the tip of Vietnam’s southern coast. But that didn’t stop her from becoming the owner of the highly successful Soall Viet Kitchen.
Located just at the end of the plaza when turning onto Bessom Street, Soall has a small but friendly staff who greet customers with a smile, whether they are handing out to-go orders or leading a group to a table in the dining room. Nguyen said that the restaurant was originally the size of just the kitchen and front counter area, but when space opened up next door, she wanted to make it a comfortable place for her customers to dine.
“I really cared about everyone’s experience,” she said. “It was so personal that the whole genesis of it, the origin story (of Soall), was all so personal. So every experience mattered to me.”
From the customer favorite sweet potato and shrimp fritters, to mango salad and flavorful braised pork ribs, Soall is about providing “refreshing Vietnamese traditions with a menu of tasty snacks, a range of delicious banh mi, and a variety of hearty noodle and rice bowls,” the restaurant’s website reads.
Though Nguyen disliked cooking, her mother was an excellent cook, making meals out of anything she could, as well as finding ways to alter dishes for Nguyen and her sister if they had a distaste toward certain foods. Heavily devoted to her family’s culture, she wanted Nguyen to continue many customs and traditions — including cooking — in order for her to provide for her family when she grew up. But Nguyen wanted to break the stereotypes that came with women working in the kitchen.
“I immediately did not want to be what my mom was,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to be a strong American woman.”
Nguyen came to the states with her family around the age of nine. She went on to attend Boston College, where she began to explore the area around the city. One day, she took a trip up the coast to Marblehead with friends, and immediately fell in love with the town.
“I’ve always loved the town. It was so green, we were hanging out on the beach,” Nguyen said. “That was kind of my first experience with a coastal town outside of Vietnam.”
But the thought of operating a restaurant had not yet crossed her mind. After school, she pursued a career as a stockbroker, but as she got older, she began to realize that there was something special about her mother’s cooking.
“Thinking back and now having grown up, I understood that’s how she loved us, through the meals she cooked,” Nguyen said.
After her realization, she wanted to start a business with her mother and her food. But in 2012, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away shortly after.
Nguyen then became determined to show the world traditional Vietnamese home cooking, honoring her mother’s passion.
And what better place to start than the coastal town that reminded her of home.
“I think that there is something really, really special about Marblehead,” Nguyen said.“The stars were aligned for me to come up here.”
After leaving the finance world to help her cousins grow an increasingly popular sushi bar in Atlanta, her friend and previous co-owner of Soall Mia Lunt reached out. Lunt had started a business in the location that Soall is in today. The concept, then called Kitchen Table, was struggling to catch on, and Lunt asked her friend for help.
“If we did it right, we would be able to share our culture,” Nguyen said.
After some trial and error, the Vietnamese eatery became a popular demand in town.
Nguyen said that another reason for establishing a Vietnamese restaurant in Marblehead was that she feels there is still not enough exposure to Vietnamese food, especially in the Boston area.
“We always feel like there’s never enough Vietnamese food out there that does it right,” she said. “You always have to go into Chinatown or Dorchester.”
The name Soall was created using the initials of Nguyen’s family members and though spelled differently, it also embodies everything about the soul, from putting it into every dish, to the atmosphere, to Nguyen being guided by her mother’s soul. She credits her mother with the success of the restaurant.
“I do believe that she is the reason why all of this is happening,” Nguyen said.