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Sunda: Modern Asian Cuisine in River North

There are few people who are as passionate about serving as Canh Nguyen.

On Wednesdays and weekends, he walks five blocks from his apartment in River North to serve at Sunda, a new Asian restaurant at 110 W. Illinois St.

Sunda, which opened in March 2009, is owned by Rockit Ranch productions, the same company that owns The Underground and Rockit Bar and Grills in both River North and Wrigleyville. They added Sunda to their chain when it opened because it was a great business in which to invest, Nguyen said.

The restaurant serves modern Asian cuisine that combines traditional dishes from Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian islands.

But Sunda is not your typical Asian restaurant. When the partners of Rockit Ranch Productions wanted to open another venue, they decided to come up with an idea for a new Asian concept — something different from other Asian restaurants in Chicago — according to server Rachel Dlugosinski, 23.

“Our menu is not just one style,” Dlugosinski said. “Which is nice for people who cannot eat certain types of food, have allergies or are vegetarian. The diverse menu and the vibrant atmosphere allow people with different tastes and lifestyles to come dine with us.”

Nguyen said they are usually booked Thursdays through Saturdays up to six months in advance because travelers coming to the city book reservations before arriving.

“A lot of people who visit the restaurant are foodies: Their passion is food,” Nguyen said. “They eat out three to five times a week. Instead of just going out and eating, they really want to learn about the dish.”

Nguyen started working at Sunda “on a fluke” when it first opened, after being laid off from Blue Water Grill over a schedule conflict. But working there has helped him find his place in Chicago.

“It was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me because that’s how I found Sunda,” Nguyen said.

He began working at the restaurant as a server and worked his way up the ladder to lead trainer. He then took a management position, but later returned to serving because he wanted to work fewer hours. He said that as a manager he missed the connection he had with clientele, something he values about working in the food industry.

Nguyen has worked a broad range of positions in hospitality, including sommelier, server, manager and trainer. But somehow, in the end, what he loves the most about food and hospitality is serving.

“I think serving in general is about making the experience very personal and extending hospitality,” he said. “I think nowadays, especially in Chicago, you can go to any restaurant. But if someone chooses your restaurant you have to be on your A-game and deliver.”

Fellow co-workers of Nguyen said that he is always helpful and has a great personality.

Dlugosinski said that if Nguyen sees that she is busy in her section, she doesn’t have to ask him for help because he is already there.

“Other than making the guests happy and satisfied, Canh is the highlight of my night,” Dlugosinski said. “Not only are shifts with Canh filled with many laughs, but no matter what we always support each other.”

Server Nolan Vack, 25, said that Nguyen is an obvious leader.

“Canh betters his coworkers by encouraging a higher standard of work ethic,” Vack said. “He brings good energy to the table and welcomes everyone like family. I am comforted when he is working because I know that he has my back and that he will be there if I need help with anything.”

Nguyen, 35, was born in Vietnam but grew up in Orange County, Calif. His parents, both Vietnamese, came to the United States in 1975 when Nguyen was 4 months old. Throughout his childhood, the family bounced back and forth between Texas and Orange County, where they eventually settled and where Nguyen came to call home.

He has fond memories of the smell of Vietnamese cooking in his parents’ home. His mother cooked traditional Vietnamese dishes but Nguyen himself regrets not having learned some of the recipes. Nguyen moved to Highland, Ind., two years ago because he wanted to get out of Orange County.

“I spent the first 30-something years of my life there,” he said. “I was in an Orange County bubble, and that’s all I knew. I was living in Newport Beach, and I knew there was more out there and that I needed to escape California. So I packed up my car and I drove to Indiana.”

He says that it took a while for him to adjust to his new Midwestern surroundings: “It was a total culture shock. The first couple of months adjusting to living here were challenging. The first winter was brutal.”

Nguyen attests that he loved growing up in Orange County. He describes it is a great place to live. After high school he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, so he enrolled in college for business management.

After he graduated, he fell into the hospitality industry, which eventually became his passion. He worked at The Montage, a luxury five-star resort on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Laguna Beach, Calif. for four years. Rooms there range from $600 to $6,000 per night. There, he got his sommelier training.

Nguyen has no trouble pin-pointing his favorite dish at Sunda: the roasted duck hash.

“What’s amazing about that dish is that it’s made with daikon, a vegetable root,” Nguyen said. “They puree it and toss it in garlic and water, and when you bite into it, it has a velvety texture. It’s savory and sweet at the same time.”

As for Nguyen’s dining choice, his favorite spot is a Vietnamese restaurant on West Argyle Street called Pho 888.

“It’s my escape,” he said. “It is my way of being close to my mom. I miss her cooking.”

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