First, the good news. Temescal has another option for those looking for an affordable night out. Now for the even better news: it’s about more than just beer. The owners of Co Nam of Polk Gulch in San Francisco have opened a second location in Oakland focused on Vietnamese street food along with a few options on the higher end.
Husband-and-wife duo Trung Nguyen and executive chef Vy Lieou style Co Nam after the Vietnamese quán nhậu. “It means a place of eating and drinking,” said Nguyen, likening it to a Vietnamese version of a Japanese izakaya or a British gastropub, essentially a neighborhood hangout where residents can stop in on their way home from work, or when they’re just on the hunt for a place to linger in the evening.
Nguyen hesitates to define Co Nam as a pure quán nhậu, as he hopes customers can come to their own definition of the space. “In [San Francisco], we define our service as ‘rustic Vietnamese,’” he said. “Here, we’re just Co Nam.”
That undefined breathing room is exactly what Nguyen was looking for by moving across the bay to Oakland. The pair had been looking to expand for some time. “We basically maxed out every inch of the space,” said Nguyen of the original location. At 1350 square feet, the space on Polk Street proved too small for their business as they expanded to offer delivery and catering.
The two had hoped to open a second location in San Francisco, in either Hayes Valley or the Financial District. But in a tale that will sound familiar to anyone even casually familiar with Bay Area real estate, the couple struggled to find a location that fit both their business needs and bank accounts. “Because of the real estate market, it was very hard to find the right place at the right price,” said Nguyen.
Not that the pair have any reservations about where their second location has landed. The Oakland Co Nam is located in the former Portofino Pizza, at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and 40th Street, at the edge of Temescal and Mosswood, a short walk from the MacArthur BART station and across the street from a soon-to-open MacArthur Commons transit village.
Nguyen lists real estate, technology and demographics as the primary factors affecting the types of restaurants a city or neighborhood can support. The price of property in San Francisco, the ease of ordering food online and the economic diversity — or disparity — of the population means that to succeed, most restaurants have to go one of two ways: they can offer high volumes at low prices or low volumes at high prices. Nguyen sees the original Co Nam as operating in the middle, “the low end of upscale dining”, as he put it, with an average diner’s ticket coming out to around $50, including drink and tip. San Francisco may not have been the ideal place for a second location anyway.
“I used to have guests that I knew from day one, [who lived] within a radius of 500 feet or so,” said Nguyen, “Those regulars moved out.” It seemed a good time for Co Nam to do likewise. “The culture has kind of evolved.”
To that end, so has Co Nam. The San Francisco location has altered its menu to serve more upscale offerings, including chef’s table style dinners on the weekends. The Oakland location is more of a return to the original vision Nguyen and Lieou had when they first opened Co Nam. They see it as a neighborhood space, where a customer can order a meal for under $20 and enjoy it without feeling rushed. “You start a restaurant, in theory, to make some money,” said Nguyen. “But it’s more an endeavor that satisfies the heart.”
“[At Co Nam] we married the modern techniques of cooking with the traditional flavors,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen has a combined 21-year history in the restaurant business, only six of those years were at a Vietnamese restaurant. Chef Lieou attended California Culinary Academy and worked under Wolfgang Puck with brothers Mitchell and Steve Rosenthal at the now closed, but much lauded Postrio. She also cooks at her family’s friend, Xyclo on Piedmont Avenue.
Balancing customer expectations against their own creative sensibilities has been a challenge for the pair. “Because we are an ethnic restaurant, we’re pigeon-holed into a certain price point,” said Nguyen. Nguyen said many diners have expectations of Vietnamese food being cheap. Which means restaurateurs often concede certain culinary standards to match their customers’ financial ones. One example is jalapeños as a garnish in pho.
“We don’t have jalapeños in Vietnam,” said Nguyen. “They’re used [in American restaurants] because they’re cheap, they’re pennies.”
At Co Nam, Nguyen and Lieou hew closer to tradition by using Thai bird chilies in most of their dishes. But for them, it’s more about the chile’s flavor than anything else. “[Thai bird chiles are] smaller, more colorful, very aromatic. The flavor just pops out of your mouth,” said Nguyen. “You don’t get that with jalapeños.”
“Not to say that I am authentic in every single dish,” Nguyen said. Despite a firm stance on the right chilies for pho, Co Nam does use jalapeños to flavor some of its appetizers. Nguyen admits an ambivalence towards the canon of what many consider “traditional” Vietnamese food.
“If you say ‘traditional food’ what are you saying?” he said. “It evolves.” Nguyen points out that even pho is a legacy of French colonization.
In response to such preconceptions, Nguyen originally refused to serve pho at Co Nam, hoping to push customers’ palates and challenge what they thought of as Vietnamese food. Though he caved after four years. “I got tired of having the conversation over and over.”
Though he and Lieou strive for better representation of Vietnamese flavor palates, Co Nam is not meant to replicate the exact experience of dining out in Vietnam. One obvious counterpoint: the appetizer menu features grilled jalapeño-glazed chicken hearts. An even more illustrative departure from tradition is the shrimp lollipop appetizer served with Vietnamese pesto. The “lollipop” is a thickened shrimp paste molded into a ball which is then skewered into a lollipop shape and grilled, while the pesto is a dipping sauce of crushed cashews, olive oil, paprika and Thai chili. And, one of Co Nam’s newest offerings is a chicken liver paté made with port wine, served with slices of La Farine baguette and pickled vegetables.
“I embrace what the demographics want, what they’re accustomed to, but at the same time we do want to introduce something,” he said. “We want to change the mindset, say ‘hey, there are more things out there.’”
To drink, diners will find draft beers from as near as Berkeley (Hoi Polloi Brewing) to as far as Japan (Hitachino Nest, Coedo and Asahi), as well as bottles of 33, a Vietnamese lager. Co Nam offers three sakes and has its own dedicated wine menu. For now, it also serves nine craft cocktails made with soju, but plans to expand the cocktail menu when their full liquor license is approved, hopefully by early next year.
Eventually, Nguyen and Lieou hope to open a third and a fourth location for Co Nam, with each branch offering unique dining experiences. Just as the chef’s table option is currently only available at the San Francisco franchise, Nguyen hopes to use each eventual location to experiment with different ideas and either expand them or shut them down, depending on their success. “Like a pop-up within our own restaurant,” he said. “It keeps everyone’s interest fresh.”
“We have an established brand, we don’t want to lose that,” said Nguyen.
Co Nam is open 3-10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Co Nam expects to add lunch hours in early in 2019.