If you’re looking for Orange County’s most exciting restaurant group, try the intersection of Brookhurst Street and Edinger Avenue in Fountain Valley. The bustling plaza pulses with traffic from day through late evening, but Kei Concepts’ collection of restaurants — fueled by chef and co-founder Viet Nguyen — act as its heart. The chef lovingly refers to their ever-expanding corner strip mall as the “crown jewel of Little Saigon,” a place already well-known for community reach and great food.
There are multiple restaurants under the Kei umbrella just in this plaza alone, and together Nguyen and the larger Kei Concepts team have sights on transforming the way that Orange County eats. Collectively, the group runs six unique brands and one rather famous franchise, with at least five more projects in the works across Southern California — including Italian fusion dining, a high-end coffeehouse, a line of seasonings, and a hot pot/dim sum combo.
Born in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, the 35-year-old Nguyen has spent most of his life in love with restaurants of all kinds, from industrial kitchens and San Gabriel Valley pho shops to the Momofuku-branded restaurants owned by David Chang. In the early part of his career he spent time selling restaurant point-of-sale technology and moonlighting in kitchens like Gordon Ramsay’s closed Fat Cow in LA, before turning to his roots for inspiration and finding it in a quality bowl of broth and noodles.
In 2014, Nguyen pooled his resources to open the original Súp Noodle Bar in Buena Park (along with co-founders Neo Du, Ivy Ha, and Edward Huang), with the intention of helping to recalibrate Orange County’s already robust pho scene. Súp’s fusion kitchen offers turned-up bowls filled with Flintstone-style braised beef rib bones that jut out from the steaming broth. Here the noodles are unlimited, the fried rice comes with seared chunks of Spam and numbing ají, and the dining room pulses with a youthful energy that pervades the staff. That feeling has become a signature for Kei Concepts, with calibrated service standards that set them apart from comparable noodle houses.
By 2017, Súp Noodle Bar had expanded to Cerritos (that short-term location closed three years later) and, in 2020, to Irvine. In that same span Nguyen, pulling from his early success with a younger, often Asian American Orange County crowd, opened Vox Kitchen in Fountain Valley. Its menu featured head-turning, planked 30-ounce prime rib-eyes, crab congee nuanced by enoki fungi plus pork floss, and juicy golden pears over greens that converted arugula naysayers with Champagne vinaigrette. The strip mall space piled in diners to the narrow front room and attached corner patio, offering views into the glassed-in kitchen. By September of that year, OC Register critic Brad A. Johnson was calling it one of the area’s hottest restaurants.
From there, Kei Concepts has kept it rolling, translating audience feedback into new restaurants and dollars through the door. “I don’t think we can just throw everything together and have Vox again,” says Nguyen of the explosive growth. A need for an upscale atmosphere and alcohol led to 2019’s Gem Dining in Fountain Valley, a nod to the shared Gemini astrological sign between Nguyen and co-founder Neo Du, plus a continuation of the Kei Concepts signature of three-letter restaurant monikers. The progressive Southeast Asian experience is more refined but still very much in the Kei mold, designed to hide in plain sight from the outside. Inside, the room bursts with life from the exhibition kitchen. There are sightlines from every table, with cooks grabbing attention as diners sip cocktails and snack on Chilean sea bass dunked in a bacon miso broth.
The Kei crew soon expanded into franchise opportunities, signing on for a Dave’s Hot Chicken in Fountain Valley and scaling a Taiwan-based bubble tea company called the Alley to Southern California. The first Alley location sprung up next door to Gem Dining in October 2019, the second at the Irvine Spectrum on February 15, 2020. Less than three weeks later, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency as a first response to the fast-spreading novel coronavirus. By March 15, restaurants across Orange County were expected to reduce their occupancy by half, while bars and wineries were ordered to fully close to reduce social gatherings. The sudden shutdowns left tens of thousands of restaurant workers unemployed virtually overnight, and left Nguyen and his team with mounting pressures (and debts) as the days dragged on to weeks.
By the summer of 2020, Kei Concepts was losing upwards of $40,000 monthly. The group had laid off hundreds of workers, unable to keep them employed under its current structure. There were simply too few hours, too few brands, and too few customers to make it work. So, despite being self-funded from the start, Nguyen and the Kei team decided to make a bold pitch to a new batch of investors during a global public health crisis: Invest $10 million to secure the future of a burgeoning Vietnamese-owned restaurant group in Little Saigon that will include women in key executive roles and offer benefits to long-term employees. The money would go toward growth, meaning more restaurants and more jobs. If he built it, Nguyen believed, there would be positions to fill and families to provide for.
The first of several restaurants to open has been Kin Craft Ramen & Izakaya, which started as a takeaway pop-up only, serving long queues of eager customers from a nondescript kitchen in Orange County. Because of Kei’s existing fanbase, the preordered, prepackaged noodle bowls often sold out in less than 10 minutes. Diners missing that noodle house vibe would descend on the pop-up’s parking lot to eat at a distance or take home to slurp. Those early pop-up days were a proving ground for Nguyen, who promised fans a brick-and-mortar space and expanded menu of craveable favorites. At home, he pored over 20 cookbooks to more closely study the wide world of ramen, expanding into more unique takes like a laksa ramen that the Register critic called one of the best things he ate last year. Between the takeout at the tea bars, Vox Kitchen and Kin, the Kei team was able to shuffle many of its more than 200-person staff around to make the hours work.
Nguyen next explored his Vietnamese roots to fund a breakfast pop-up called Nép Cafe, converting the sidewalk in front of Gem Dining into a makeshift patio. The French-Vietnamese menu worked for the community and the climate of Orange County; waits ballooned early and often. “Nobody can travel back to Vietnam,” Nguyen said at the time, nodding to global travel restrictions, “but now we can do outdoor dining.” Four-hour waits led to roasted bone marrow over orecchiette, or uni and soft scrambled eggs over toast. Nép — now its own restaurant, and one of the busiest in Orange County — not only worked as a daytime option for employees looking for hours, it soon outgrew the group’s staffing projections entirely.
In August 2021, the group took a slightly different track, allocating $500,000 for a rebrand of Huntington Beach restaurant The Cure Kitchen & Bar, owned by Nguyen’s longtime friend Lovia. She had been struggling to stay open, often working alone in the kitchen while also watching her daughter via a restaurant camera in the back. Nguyen and the Kei group built a hand roll bar essentially from scratch in just 21 days, taking cues from hitmakers like Los Angeles’ KazuNori. Rol Hand Roll Bar offers house-made sauces like a yuzu kosho and truffle soy sauce, a collection of cocktails, those signature rolls plus an off-menu Big Keeler — an open-faced, over-the-top concoction of fatty tuna, A5 wagyu, Santa Barbara uni, avocado, and caviar. While Kei Concepts manages Rol’s daily operation, Lovia continues to have equity in the brand. The restaurant has grown to 40 employees, and a second location is planned a few doors down from Vox Kitchen in Fountain Valley.
Now, two years into the pandemic and roughly a year after opening both Kin and Nép Cafe, Nguyen and the Kei Concepts team find themselves in a new moment. The group is nearly cash-positive and transitioning toward a spring and summer with no mask mandates, vaccine requirements, or necessary governmental or public health guardrails in place. Orange County (which had already taken a more hands-off approach to the pandemic compared to neighboring Los Angeles County) is wide open and filled with eager diners. Kei Concepts’ constellation of restaurants feel well-positioned to guide the way.
There are plans to grow Kei Concepts in several new directions, starting with a Japanese-Italian restaurant in Fountain Valley named Ini Ristorante. There will be pastas and wine and an elegant weekend brunch, complete with high tea. A cafe and bakery (called Kei Coffee House) is also in the works, and like many other big groups, there are plans for at-home products to come as well. Momofuku has its dried noodles and flavored salts; Kei has Sót, a place for seasonings and sauces that span across the group’s range. A still-unnamed fourth project nearby teases 10,000 square feet of dim sum, hot pot, and day drinking.
On paper, Kei Concepts is now close to a dozen different businesses run by one energetic chef. In reality, it’s a team effort that is hundreds of workers strong, which is precisely why Nguyen and the Kei Concepts team moved to open, grow, and employ during the pandemic. Nguyen says that he’s proud of his Vietnamese heritage, and prouder still to be a part of a growing Southeast Asian food and beverage group that is leading the charge across Orange County.