Diners at Omai can be whisked a world away to the river deltas of Vietnam without ever leaving La Grange.
The Vietnamese restaurant opened May 29 at 50A S. La Grange Road as the third type of cuisine owners Thipi and Tony Soto have stirred up in the kitchen.
“I decided to do something different. There isn’t a Vietnamese restaurant around here,” Tony Soto said.
To make way for the new venture, the couple closed El Picante, a Mexican restaurant they opened two years ago at the same location, showcasing Tony Soto’s heritage. With several other Mexican restaurants nearby, he said he wanted to go in another direction and took his time remodeling the space over three months.
“I wanted some kind of place I can sit down and feel like I’m in a forest with music like when it rains,” Tony Soto said. “People can come in, sit down, relax and enjoy and not be in too much of a hurry.”
One of the pleasures worth waiting for is Vietnamese coffee, which brews at the table and takes five minutes to drip through a filter, he said.
Soft lighting and cool, pale green walls create a restful backdrop for the couple’s art collection. Several paintings depict scenes from Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, where the couple travels frequently to visit Thipi Soto’s family.
Tony Soto attended cooking programs in Chicago and Thailand and studied with a Vietnamese chef for the past six months in a Chicago neighborhood.
“Vietnamese cuisine has a lot more noodles and it’s not as spicy,” he said. “The flavors are completely different, not as strong. There is still a lot of garlic and onion.”
No monosodium glutamate is used as a flavor enhancer, and gluten-free versions are listed on the menu, though nearly every dish can be modified to be made gluten free, Tony Soto said.
“My wife and I love to cook, and we love arguing about the food,” he said and smiled. “I have to put my nose to it and see how it comes out, and it’s the same for her. As long as she says it’s OK, I’m happy.”
The couple’s first eatery at the La Grange Road location was Thipi Thai, one of the first Thai restaurants in the area. That restaurant relocated around the corner at 25 W. Calendar Ave.
“When we opened 13 years ago, we were jam-packed. There was a line out the door,” Thipi Soto recalled. The couple opened a second Thipi Thai seven years ago in Glen Ellyn.
Customers’ response to Omai is gradual, she said, noting the economy is slower than 13 years ago with people now eating out less frequently.
Diners will enjoy experimenting with Vietnamese cuisine, which features fresh mint, basil, bean sprouts, cucumbers, cilantro and pickled radishes and carrots, Thipi Soto said.
“Our pho, the noodle soup, is coming along. We are listening to our customers’ input,” she said. “The Vietnamese sandwiches are very popular, along with the lemon grass beef, marinated pork and sauteed chicken.”
Tony Soto said he likes to incorporate recipes from his travels, especially to Vietnam and Thailand.
“I go to the food stands. I like to try everything,” he said. “I go in the back of the kitchen and ask to see what they do. They teach me their secrets. I love it.”