Editor’s Note: La Barrique has reopened as Pho Ha Noi Elite and offers a similar menu at the same location.
At La Barrique in San Jose’s Little Saigon, you can start your meal with a volcano of flaming bone marrow and a crafted cocktail, dine on a 42-ounce tomahawk steak served on a wooden platter and end your evening with colorful gelatos rising out of a fog of dry ice.
The presentation is an impressive feast for the eyes, but the food transcends the showmanship. The bone marrow, scooped onto toast, melts like butter. The cocktails are vibrant and colorful, with no stinting on the alcohol. The massive steak is juicy and tender, perfectly cooked and seasoned. And the gelato is delightfully refreshing, nicely balancing out the meal.
“When I opened the restaurant, my first goal was just learning how to run it,” said Harry Nguyen, who co-owns La Barrique with his wife, Helen. “My next goal was to make the customers happy so they would keep coming back.”
The Nguyens entered the restaurant business in 2016, shortly after arriving from Vietnam. They began with Phở Hà Nội in 2016, located around the corner from La Barrique, as a means of helping recently arrived family members who had only been able to find low-paying restaurant jobs.
“They were not being treated fairly,” Nguyen said. “To have a good restaurant, you have to build a good working environment for your employees and give them a good income compared to other places. We spend a lot on labor costs, but that is the key to a good business.”
In 2019, the Nguyens opened La Barrique, as well as a second Phở Hà Nội location in Cupertino. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, they found themselves having to shorten their hours as the business faltered. Relying on catering to keep their workers employed, they quickly found themselves busy through a chance after-hours encounter with a nurse.
“She knocked on the door, and we told her we were closed,” Nguyen said. “She told us she was a frontline worker at a hospital, but she was in isolation in a hotel because of COVID. Helen asked the cooks to reopen the kitchen and make her dinner.”
In talking to the woman, the Nguyens learned good food was hard to get at the hospital.
“People donated things like pizza and cookies,” Nguyen said. “My wife decided we would donate to frontline workers, and from the (start) we were donating 200 to 300 meals a day to different hospitals all over the county.”
Able to reopen in April 2021, La Barrique’s current menu offers a fusion of Vietnamese and French styles. Appetizers include ahi tuna poki nachos made with wonton chips, crunchy salted chicken cartilage, lamb chops served with sour cream, and salted pepper squid with chili sauce. The pork belly skewers are particularly nice—tender and juicy from being cooked sous vide for 24 hours.
While La Barrique also serves duck, lamb and lobster, the restaurant particularly shines in its selection of steaks, including a 12-ounce rib eye, 12-ounce filet mignon, 24-ounce prime rib eye and the 42-ounce tomahawk.
Nguyen’s engineering background is apparent in his approach to the kitchen, which uses the latest in high-tech gadgetry, like the Rational iCombi Pro used to cook many dishes, including steaks. The machine has an array of monitors and sensors which allows the degree of doneness of the meat to be assessed with pinpoint accuracy.
“The machine lets us cook faster and better,” he said. “Because it knows exactly how to adjust for what you are cooking, it means our staff can be doing other things in the kitchen or taking care of customers rather than watching a steak cook.”
George Reyes, a federal agent with NASA and a regular, is a devoted customer of both restaurants owned by the Nguyens.
“I was raised in Texas, so I know my steak,” he told San José Spotlight. “This has got to be the best place for me to get one, and I come here every Friday for my tomahawk. The quality of the meat is excellent: the most tender, juiciest and most flavorful steak you will find anywhere in this area. It is cooked so perfectly that if you put any sauce on it, you would kill it.”
Reyes described the atmosphere of La Barrique as “second to none,” and praised the staff, saying he appreciates how they represent the food, the restaurant and themselves.
“They take the time to explain every meal, every single dish,” he said. “They try their best to make recommendations to match your own palette. Everything about this place is outstanding, and you feel like you are making new friendships when you come here.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]
Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected]