BURLINGTON >> Cindy Chui sat in the meticulously appointed Lemongrass Asian Grill off Route 4 in Burlington, sunlight streaming in through large windows as diners enjoy lunch.
The soft, cozy and warm atmosphere inside Lemongrass is many worlds away from Chui’s youth, when she had to flee her native Hanoi, Vietnam as bombs rained down on the city in the early 1970s during the final stages of the Vietnam War.
“I left the city to stay with relatives when the worst of the bombing started around 1972,” Chui says. “My parents had to stay behind in Hanoi to try and make a living. It was scary times for us.”
Once the war ended, Chui emigrated to China with her family, and from there they joined refugees that streamed into then British-run Hong King, seeking a better way of life and freedom. Her family lived in a refugee camp for about a year, until a family in Bloomfield, was able to sponsor them and bring them to the United States in 1981. The family, and Cindy, set up a new home in Hartford.
Chui held various jobs and began working in a Farmington restaurant featuring Chinese food. It was there she met her husband, Dennis Chui, in 1991. Dennis had also come to the United States from his native Hong Kong. The two struck up a friendship that turned into romance and they were married in 1992.
But here’s the interesting back story. “When Cindy was in the refugee camp, I was living in an apartment building across the street,” explained Dennis Chui with a smile. “I would look over at the camp from my sixth-floor apartment, of course not knowing that my future wife was there. What are the possibilities that we would both eventually come to the United States, to Connecticut, and wind up working at the same restaurant? It’s quite a love story.” Indeed it is.
The couple decided to strike out into the restaurant business on their own shortly after marrying, and opened Joy Luck in Vernon, which specialized in a variety of Asian cuisines. They ran the dining establishment for eight years before moving to Farmington to open Green Tea and eventually a smaller establishment, Lotus, on Route 4. Both establishments have been successful for a number of years.
After researching a new spot to open another restaurant, the couple settled on the former Cassille’s building in Burlington, that had been vacant for about three years.
“Avon, Farmington and Simsbury have bigger populations, but they also have more restaurants per person,” said Dennis Chui, who runs the front end of the business, and serves as official taste-tester for his wife’s dishes. “Burlington has a lot of professionals and there was a need for this type of restaurant here. This location is perfect, right off Route 4, which has a lot of traffic.”
The couple undertook a quite extensive renovation of the interior of the building and gave it a decided Asian flair, which adds to the enjoyment of dining here. Lemongrass Asian Grill opened in November 2016, and the reception from diners has been nothing but positive. The restaurant draws customers from towns around Burlington, such as Torrington, Harwinton, Farmington, Avon and Litchfield. There is seating for between 80 and 90 patrons.
While the ambiance of Lemongrass Asian Grill makes eating there fun and relaxing, it is the menu that draws foodies in. The restaurant features Thai, Vietnamese and pho cuisine.
“We specialize in healthy and light food, not oily and heavy,” said Dennis Chui. “Everything is made from scratch with natural and fresh ingredients.”
Cindy Chui does much of the cooking and rules the kitchen, keeping a close watch on her helpers until she feels they know exactly how she wants each dish prepared.
“I use a lot of lemongrass, which gives the dishes a nice, soft citrus flavor,” says Cindy Chui. “We prepare authentic Asian food and make sure it is fresh every day.”
Lemongrass is a stalky plant that grows in Asia as well as Africa, Australia and on tropical islands. It is widely used as a culinary herb in Asian cuisines and also as medicinal herb in India. It has a subtle citrus flavor and can be dried and powdered, or used fresh. It is commonly used in teas, soups and curries. It is also suitable for use with poultry, fish, beef, and seafood.
Lemongrass is a key ingredient in the restaurant’s signature dish, pho, which has bloomed in popularity around the world since the end of the Vietnam War. The broth is rich and flavorful, consisting of rice noodles, herbs and meat, although Lemongrass offers a shrimp and vegetarian pho as well. It is believed pho originated in northern Vietnam in the early 20th century.
This diner was asked to sample a bowl of pho and it was simply scrumptious. The citrus flavor of lemongrass was noticeable but not overpowering, and the beef, which was sliced and presented rare and cooked in the broth, was light and flavorful. A side dish of bean sprouts, basil and two sauces, one sweet the other a tad spicy, allowed the diner to change up the overall flavor of the pho, a fun twist to the dish.
“This really is our signature dish” said Cindy Chui. “You can eat it anytime of the day and some people make a whole meal out of it, although you can split it among several people and have it as an appetizer.”
Appetizers on the menu include crispy pork and vegetable spring rolls, salt and pepper squid, and a fish ball pancake. There are a number of vermicelli-style dishes that are served with room temperature angel hair rice noodles, lettuce, cucumber, carrots, basil, and crushed peanut, accented by a traditional Vietnamese homemade sauce.
On the Vietnamese menu are pork chops, chicken and jumbo shrimp served over grilled lemon grass, and chicken and sausage fried rice, while the Thai cuisine choices include Thai mango, chicken, jumbo shrimp, beef or salmon served with fresh mango, snow peas, onion, peppers, asparagus, sautéed with a special mango sauce. Chinese delights include chicken or shrimp General Tso, and traditional fried rice served with a choice of chicken, pork, shrimp or vegetables.
The restaurant offers luncheon specials, as well as a number of entrees. Beer and wine is available and prices are very reasonable. “I want to see my customers more than once a week,” said Dennis Chui.
Lemongrass Asian Grill is open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Visit www.lemongrassburlington,com.