Tuan “Ni” (pronounced like “knee”) Nguyen had a childhood that was very different from his parents’ experiences. “I didn’t eat pho in Vietnam… I had it in Orange County,” says Ni, the California-born first-generation Vietnamese American chef behind a modern Vietnamese eatery that debuts this month on East Colfax.

Ni’s experiences inspired the cuisine at Sắp Sửa, which he owns with Anna Nguyen, his wife, the restaurant’s chef-baker, and a Longmont native. While the Nguyens have worked on the highly anticipated eatery since early 2020, Anna says Sắp Sửa (which roughly translates to “about to be” in Vietnamese) is 10 years in the making. “Really, in the loosest form, I think we’ve been working on it for as long as we’ve been together,” she says.

Sap Sua hamachi_courtesy of Ni and Anna Nguyen
Sắp Sửa’s hamachi. Photo courtesy of Casey Wilson (@caseywlsn)

Touted as “nontraditional” Vietnamese fare, Ni explained that Sắp Sửa’s menu should feel like the internet meme “iykyk” (if you know, you know). Each dish has been inspired by a traditional counterpart, so the chefs’ sweet spot is when Sắp Sửa’s flavors are both reinventive and nostalgic. For Ni, the function of tradition is not limitation, but rather inspiration. Sắp Sửa is unmistakably the creation of a first-generation Asian American chef who grew up eating time-honored dishes but also enjoyed Double-Doubles from In-N-Out.

The playful techniques and fine-dining aesthetics invite newcomers to Vietnamese cuisine to exercise culinary curiosity. For Anna, the perfect example of this is the hamachi crudo, made with turmeric, leche de tigre (“which is like a spicy orange juice,” she says), fish sauce, fermented shrimp paste, and dill, whereas the traditional version, chả cá lã vọng, features a whole roasted catfish. By maintaining similar flavor profiles, the hope is that if guests love Sắp Sửa, they will feel encouraged to embrace other Denver Vietnamese restaurants to experience the traditional dishes.

“We can act as a gateway for guests to understand Vietnamese culture better and experience traditional Vietnamese food,” Ni says.

Anna, foremost a pastry chef, developed the restaurant’s desserts with patience and intention, which she says also helps her avoid cultural appropriation. “I just feel a very sincere duty to do justice to a whole cuisine I didn’t grow up eating, which is kind of an intense thing,” she says.

Sắp Sửa’s grass jelly dessert.
Sắp Sửa’s grass jelly dessert. Photo courtesy of Casey Wilson (@caseywlsn)

Anna has found success by seeing things for “what they are, versus what you want them to be,” which resulted in the development of dishes such as a rendition of chè sương sáo, a dessert centered on bitter and delicate grass jelly. After numerous failures, Anna allowed herself to sit with the components and flavors for what they were, rather than cooking around them, and ended up with a successful grass jelly dessert with coconut crème and a guava granita (a component added at the advice of Sắp Sửa general manager Heeji Kim).

“I think it really feels Vietnamese, but feels like my kind of style too, which is nice,” Anna says of the final version. “Because you don’t want to lose yourself, but you also can’t water down a whole culture’s worth of ingredients.”

For the Nguyens, the grind has been nonstop, from recipe testing in Anna’s parents’ home kitchen in 2020, to renting out the kitchen of Longmont’s Tangerine (which closed temporarily during the pandemic) to offer a limited takeout menu that included mi vit quay (roasted duck noodle soup) and bún thịt nướng (lemongrass pork with vermicelli). Since summer 2022, Sắp Sửa has hosted eight pop-up events with local establishments like Pizzeria Locale, Sunday Vinyl, Hickory & Ash, and GetRight’s. During this time, Ni also worked on the Pho King Rapidos food truck and Anna made gluten-free pizza dough at Etalia Foods. Many days involved 13-hour-shift mornings, mid-day prep cooking, and dinner services.

Sắp Sửa’s charred cabbage. Photo courtesy of Casey Wilson (@caseywlsn)

“It was always a lot of moving stuff around,” she says. “A lot of cooking in really random places. Some [pop-ups] we felt very proud of. There were a few that were very humbling.”

Despite challenges and intermittent exhaustion, Ni says they learned from their failures and successes. With each pop-up, the couple honed flavors, streamlined prep lists and the dining service workflow, and eventually constructed a full menu. The events also provided ample opportunities to connect with the local community and notable culinary industry pros, including Long Nguyen of Pho King Rapidos, whose popular food truck recently transitioned into a brick-and-mortar spot at Avanti Food & Beverage in LoHi. 

Seeing him as a culinary peer, a trailblazer for AAPI cuisine in Denver, and a genuine friend, Anna and Ni recognized that Sắp Sửa would not be possible if not for Nguyen and others like him. “I think he bridged the gap of ‘Vietnamese food doesn’t have to be super traditional to be delicious,’” Anna says.

Ultimately, Anna and Ni believe in taking up space as authentically as possible, with responsibility to balance personal identity and cultural representation. Ni emphasized that no culture is a monolith. “There’s so many nuances to what we try to do. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming,” Ni says. “But I think that at the end of the day, when me and Anna feel comfortable that we can be just genuinely ourselves…we’ll be OK.”

Anna said this journey has empowered them both to trust their instincts, embrace their individual perspectives, and believe in the adventurous palates of their guests. “We’ve just cooked exactly what we’ve wanted to cook…and people have really liked it!” she says.

Sắp Sửa, located at 2550 E. Colfax Ave, is slated to open in late June. For updates and more information, check the website and follow @sapsuarestaurant on Instagram. 

Chris Marhevka
Chris Marhevka
Chris Marhevka is a freelance writer and a graduate of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Follow him at @chrismarhevka on Instagram.