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Sap Sua, one of Denver’s most anticipated new restaurants, opens today

Anna and Anthony Nguyen were beaming from ear to ear on the weekend of Sap Sua’s soft opening.

The couple has been dreaming up their first restaurant for the last three years since they moved from Los Angeles, where they worked at award-winning restaurants Animal and Osteria Mozza, to Anna’s hometown of Longmont in early 2020. And after a few trial runs over the weekend, they are finally ready to see the dining room come to life.

“It’s easy to feel like we’re at the finish line because we’re open and have gotten through constructions and inspections, but it really is just another starting line,” Anna said.

Sap Sua, located at 2550 E. Colfax Ave., officially opens to the public today, June 28, at 4:30 p.m. Reservation slots will be available starting at 10 a.m. on the restaurant’s website. And the anticipation is real.

Bon Appetit named Sap Sua one of its eight most-anticipated restaurant openings across the country this summer, and it’s also one of The Denver Post’s most-anticipated restaurants of 2023 and one of our possible Michelin Star contenders.

The modern Vietnamese restaurant is an homage to Anthony’s experience as a first-generation Vietnamese American, and the menu features family recipes with a twist, such as bắp cải luộc, a charred cabbage dish with anchovy breadcrumbs and an egg yolk sauce, inspired by his mom’s humble boiled cabbage and rice recipe. He wants to give every first-generation kid the chance to see the recipes they also grew up with in a more upscale setting.

“For me growing up in all these different kitchens, I never got the opportunity to work at a restaurant that really spoke to me on a cultural level,” Anthony said. “So I want to be able to give that to other Vietnamese cooks who want to pursue this and do more than the traditional, but also feel like they’re at grandma’s house.”

Another dish inspired by Anthony’s childhood is bánh ngọt chiên, or crispy veal sweetbreads. After school, Anthony would ditch his Kumon tutoring sessions and visit a neighborhood boba shop, where he’d snack on Taiwanese popcorn chicken. He said he decided to use veal sweetbreads instead as a nod to a dish he made at Animal in L.A.

Anna, a baker at heart, is in charge of the desserts and worked tirelessly to perfect the chè sương sáo. “It’s the hardest I’ve worked on a dish in my career,” she said. “No dish has broken me like that one before.”

It’s a grass jelly dessert, common in Vietnamese culture, balanced by sweetness and texture with shaved pebble ice, guava and fresh coconut. Anthony said he’s proud of both his business and life partner for capturing the cultural integrity of the dish, while also staying true to herself.

“I just feel a really strong sense of duty to do justice to Vietnamese food as someone who’s not Vietnamese,” Anna said. “I’ve taken a lot of time to make sure the desserts we come up with really feel Vietnamese. This one was fairly hard flavor-wise, and it took me a long time to put together because I don’t ever want to rush a dessert. It’s too important to not get it right. Not enough chefs cooking a cuisine outside of one they grew up with take the time to understand what a dish feels like beyond the flavors.”

Anna’s parents, Becky and Mark McLean, visited during the soft opening and worked the dining room with proud tears in their eyes. And Anthony’s visited from California a week before, when they originally intended to open before running into some delays.

“It’s just crazy to go from being so afraid to ask your parents for their blessing to cook for your entire career to seeing the look on their faces when they walk into your first restaurant,” Anthony said.

Sap Sua, designed by Kevin Nguyen (unrelated) with Regular Architecture, has soft green tones and natural woodwork that creates a clean aesthetic. The 62-seat restaurant is located in the Lowenstein Theater building that also houses the Tattered Cover and the Sie FilmCenter, across the street from City Park, where Anna and Anthony actually got married.

The Nguyens have been preparing for this moment for the last three years, perfecting their craft at a series of pop-up previews that garnered a lot of attention.

“We weren’t nervous to open because it felt like just another pop-up, even though it was at our own restaurant,” Anthony said.

They’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, tears and sleepless nights into getting things up and running. “There was no luck involved,” Anna said. And they’ve learned the true value of spending money wisely, working with good contractors and finding the right staff as first-time owners.

Sắp sửa means “about to be” or “almost” in Vietnamese, touching on their philosophy that you’ll never be the best version of yourself.

“Our whole purpose is to be better than the day before,” Anna said. “So hopefully your first meal will be the worst one you have here.”

Sap Sua is closed on Tuesdays, since most restaurants are closed on Mondays, and the Nguyens want to offer a spot for service industry folks to enjoy their day off, as well as give the Sap Sua staff more options on theirs. It’s open on the weekdays from 4:30 to 9 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on the weekend.

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