It took a trauma and a triumph for Richard Le to pull his identity as a second-generation Vietnamese American into focus.
In 2015, Le’s mother, who he says was his connection to Vietnamese culture, died. It was his mother who kept delicious omelets packed with shrimp, fresh herbs, tomato, and onion in the fridge for teenage Le to eat as a snack while watching Anthony Bourdain after school in San Jose.
In 2017, Le and his wife, Sophia, visited Vietnam for their honeymoon, where his uncle made him a steak and fried potatoes dish that immediately zapped him back to childhood.
“It triggered this crazy rush of memories and feels,” Le says. “It transported me back to being eight years old and having a meal with my dad and my grandma.”
From these two life events came Matta, a chic food cart in the Northeast Alberta Whale Pod that’s serving home-style Vietnamese cooking miles apart from the standard pho and bánh mì most Americans recognize.
That omelet ($12) is on the menu every Sunday, served on rice with a rich, salty soup. That steak? Grab it on Fridays for $12.
“Each dish is connected to me, and to memories,” Le says. “All my dishes are my favorite because they all have specific memories.”
The thịt kho ($12)—pork belly braised with coconut water, chilis, and caramel—comes straight from Le’s aunt. It’s extremely rich, especially with the addition of a soft-boiled egg, making the tangy do chua, or pickled vegetables, a mandatory addition. “That’s what my aunt makes for me every family gathering: Lunar New Year, holidays, or just coming home to visit,” Le says. “She knows that’s my favorite shit she makes. To this day, I still can’t make it as good as she can.”
Sophia Le has perfected a pandan donut, a puff of yeasted dough topped with a cheery green frosting made with the Southeast Asian herb, complete with a donut hole. (Save one for the end of the meal with a bracingly strong Vietnamese coffee, with just a hint of condensed milk.)
And there’s more on the way. The couple says they plan on returning to Vietnam as much as possible.
“My goal is to really soak up as much knowledge as I can, especially from my own family,” Richard says, adding that part of his family is from the central coast city of Huế. He says he’s already experimenting with a recipe for bánh bèo: addictive steamed rice cakes topped with chicharron, dried shrimp, and herbs, with a fish sauce dip.
“It’s helped me find balance from living in limbo,” he says. “I’m finding what it is to be American, what it is to be Vietnamese, and find my identity in all of it.”