Tin Vuong is Asian, and he’s a chef. But to corner him as “an Asian chef” would be a mistake. Sure, he’s best known for Little Sister, his Manhattan Beach restaurant (a new location recently opened in downtown L.A.) that slings authentic and remixed Southeast Asian favorites to a soundtrack of gangster rap.
But the limelight-shunning Vuong — an Alhambra native who grew up surrounded by a melting pot of friends, from Latino and Japanese to white — is also chef and co-owner at four other restaurants under the Blackhouse Hospitality umbrella, all opened within the last four years. They embody four thoroughly distinct cuisines and concepts, from a brewpub with dishes from around the world (Redondo Beach’s Abigaile) to a modern take on Northern Italian pizzas (Wildcraft in Culver City) to a surfy sit-down Mexican restaurant that serves creative ceviches (Día de Campo in Manhattan Beach) to a new-wave American steakhouse where you can go full grandpa with seven kinds of dry-aged beef and hundreds of brown liquors (Steak & Whisky, also in Manhattan Beach).
“I want to do different things,” Vuong says. “Some people are happy doing one thing, but I want to use my full potential — and I don’t think I’ve peaked yet. I want to do everything I want to do, and I want to do it now.”
Vuong’s family came to California from Vietnam, but his grandparents originally are from Shanghai. He grew up speaking Vietnamese and Cantonese, celebrating both New Years and eating food with origins in the two countries.
When he got in trouble as a child, Vuong’s family would remind him that they had left behind successful dental practices in Vietnam and started their lives in the States using only the money they made by selling diamonds his grandma kept hidden in her mouth for the entire boat journey.
“My grandparents definitely kept me grounded,” he says.
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After finishing a business degree at UCLA, a TV ad (and the need to defer his student loans) prompted Vuong to try culinary school. In the decade after he graduated, he worked at upscale hotels in Orange County, creating imaginative menus that never bore his name. Then restaurateur Jed Sanford found him through a headhunter, and the two launched Blackhouse, quickly taking advantage of location opportunities that came their way and organically building out a mini empire of restaurants that represent L.A.’s culinary diversity.
There has never been a master plan for Vuong’s succession of restaurants. When coming up with a new menu or deciding to open a new spot, he says he relies mostly on his intuition — how does the space feel? Is the timing right?
“It’s like gambling,” he says with a smile. “There’s a little strategy, but if everyone knew the outcome of every hand, then we’d all be at a casino every day. I’m always taking the best chance for me to succeed.”