Mom's Cooking

A Buddhist shrine dominates the front room of Tony Nguyen and Dan Duong’s home. In a garden, they grow peppers and herbs for their business.

The Wednesday farmers market at Natividad Medical Center in Salinas has a lot to offer when in season. One vendor sells homemade hummus, another sells aromatic coffee. Baskets of colorful fruits and vegetables line the shelves of produce stands. But Dan Duong and her family felt like something was missing.

“I’ve always enjoyed cooking for others,” says Duong, who goes by Mommy Dan. While shopping at the farmers market earlier this year, Duong and her family hatched an idea: She should open a food stand.

“We started working on it that night,” says Vu Nguyen, Duong’s son, who translated his parents’ responses from Vietnamese for this article. The family worked together on completing the checklist of requirements for opening a new food business. Nguyen’s wife, Allison Lardizabal, designed the logo. Three weeks later, Mommy Makes Vegan Vietnamese was in business.

Since its June 12 inception, Mommy Makes has been serving vegan versions of classic Vietnamese dishes at two Salinas farmers markets: Wednesdays at Natividad and Fridays at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. (Natividad's market closed for the winter on Oct. 30.) On any given day, one of Duong’s five children or a friend may be running the stand alongside her. She’s also flanked by her husband, Tony Nguyen, who can be found whipping up vegan Vietnamese coffees – made with homemade condensed coconut milk instead of dairy – or shredding mangoes for salads. He retired in 2016, after 17 years as a commercial fisherman.

“Mom said [to dad], ‘I supported your career for 20 years, now it’s your turn,’” Vu recalls. For his part, Tony seems happy to support his wife at the food stand. “Doing this is so much more relaxing, and I’m having so much more fun,” he says. Giving back through food has been a consistent thread through Duong’s life. Growing up in Vietnam, she started cooking for her family at age 13. Her skills in the kitchen were also a way for her to contribute to local Buddhist monasteries, a tradition she brought with her to the Monterey Bay area.

“Having a food stand is my way of sharing healthy vegan food with more people,” she says. “The food has meaning, there’s a lot of intent behind it.”

She regularly volunteers as a cook for monasteries including Chua Uu Dam in Marina, and others in Watsonville, Santa Cruz and San Jose. Now, Duong, 63, is enjoying her role as the matriarch of a new business. Inspired by the monks and nuns, who Vu says are all either vegetarian or vegan, she says her Buddhist beliefs inform her desire to cook for people and provide them with healing and nourishing vegan food. The food stand has become a popular staple at the markets. “We’re already selling out of all of our food,” she says.

The demand for vegan food reflects a much different Salinas than that of the early 1980s, when the family immigrated from Vietnam. Outside of the local Vietnamese community of about 50 people back then, Duong says, vegan food was unheard of. Now, there’s a line for the food stand and its six-item menu. The signature item is spicy lemongrass soup, a vegan twist on a classic Vietnamese dish bún bò hue, which generally includes pork and beef; this soup instead has “vegan meat mushrooms.” They offer crispy rolls with mung beans and shredded coconut, cold noodle salad, a green mango salad with tofu and spring rolls filled with vegetables.

“A lot of times spring rolls are boring, but these have something special,” says Laura Taylor, a sonographer at Natividad, in line on a recent lunch break waiting to order spicy lemongrass noodle soup. While she’s not strictly vegetarian, Taylor says she appreciates having more meat-free options.

Duong considers serving vegan food as a public service. “Every time she serves her food, she knows she’s putting the healthy ingredients out there,” Vu Nguyen says. “The more vegan food that we consume, the better the world’s going to be.”

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The notion of food as medicine is reflected by the hospitals where she serves her food. But there’s another reason Duong likes working at the two hospitals: her youngest children were born in them. “The hospitals took care of me. Now I want to take care of them,” she says.

At their home in Salinas, Duong and Nguyen show off their garden of herbs and peppers they use in their cooking. On the wall inside, Tony Nguyen points to an old photograph of a boat. “I built this boat!” he says. “Me and this boat killed a lot of fish.” What would have been a boastful claim from a different fisherman instead leaves him with a pained expression. Now, he says, he’s going in a different direction.

Editor's Note: The print edition stated that the farmers market for both Natividad and Salinas Valley Memorial hospitals run through Nov. 25. Salinas Valley's runs through Nov. 22 and Natividad's closed on Oct. 30 until next spring. This post has been updated with the correct information.

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