She was working a corporate gig at Brinks as a marketing coordinator and had no restaurant background. Her brother was looking for a way out of the corporate death spiral. Even though her brother and his ex-wife once had a now-defunct Brazilian restaurant, it was a leap. A big one. But 30-year-old Susie Bui, who looks closer to 20, took it.
She opened Lumi Empanada & Dumpling Kitchen, and even though opening a restaurant might have been a stretch, being involved with food certainly wasn't. "I've always had passion for food," Bui says. "I love cooking. And I love, love, love going out." She is quick and funny, and there's a determination in her that you can see as soon as you meet her.
"We couldn't get away with just empanadas though," she said. "We needed something health conscious." That's when they decided to mix the two unlikely bedfellows that are what make Lumi so unique -- Vietnamese food and Brazilian food, empanadas and dumplings.
"We have Brazilian empanadas that people aren't used to. They're mostly used to the Argentinean ones." Regardless of what they were used to in the past, Bui says diners really love what Lumi has going. And, she's says, "We got really lucky with the location. It's really good exposure. And we're different."
The mix of Vietnamese and Brazilian is not the only thing that makes Lumi different from many restaurants. It's also its "small plates" style. Other places do it, but based on its success, it appears Lumi does it really well. "You can order as many [dishes] as you want and share family style. But we also offer lunch combos for people eating with co-workers that they might not want to share with. People love it." How does she know? Yelp.com, she says. "I love Yelp. And I love the customers at Lumi."
The menu at Lumi stays pretty much the same, although Bui says that she adds a few items to the menu as the seasons change, and she has plans to add more vegetarian dishes. As for where the items and recipes come from, Bui says, "The traditional Vietnamese are from my parents and the Brazilian one's are from my brother's ex's parents. The rest I've played around with. They're ones I've used at a lot of parties I've thrown."
As for what's new at Lumi these days, Bui says, "We have pho now. It's my mom and dad's recipe. We had it last year and then stopped serving it when it got warm. So now it's back. But just at lunch."
We tried out the beef pho when we were at Lumi and it was delicious. Rich, flavorful broth loaded with tasty noodles, sliced beef and meatballs. I know I might get in trouble here, but I eat a lot of pho and I have to say it's the best I've had.
Then we ordered a variety of small plates: chicken empanadas with ancho cream sauce; fiesta shrimp and crab empanadas with cilantro cream sauce; fresh Vietnamese summer rolls with hoisin-peanut sauce; ba noi egg rolls (Bui's grandma's recipe); shrimp, cilantro and jicama dumplings with sweet and sour sauce (steamed); and Thai panang curry chicken dumplings (pan-fried) with coconut-curry sauce.
Everything was delicious. The ingredients were fresh, the sauces were perfect additions, and it was nice to be able to mix and match them. The summer rolls offered a surprising crunch that was really nice and the empanadas were remarkably light and crisp. It was really fun sampling and sharing.
Bui and her family are responsible for the recipes, and they have cooks in the kitchen to cook those recipes "along with my parents," Bui says. "All the mixes I do ahead of time. But my mom and dad are physically in kitchen. When it's busy, I'll go back there. But my dad is back there five days a week. My brother is more of the operational side."
Having a family business is not always easy. As for as how it's affected Bui's relationship with her parents, she says with a laugh, "I used to be the favorite. Not anymore."
All kidding aside, Bui says that opening Lumi has, "turned my life 180. And I don't regret anything." The experience has certainly taught her a lot, including an interesting observation about the difference between men and women in the kitchen, "Girls go by recipe. Men go by instinct. That's why women are such good bakers."
So how does she explain her own killer kitchen instincts that she would generally ascribe to men? "I've been raised as a guy in my family. I'm Daddy's girl. When I was younger I was a tomboy," she says. Bui is built like a runner, tiny and compact. It's easy to imagine her on a strict, athlete's diet. Much to my dismay, nothing could have been farther from the truth. She loves to go out drinking with friends, and she loves to eat.
"You wouldn't believe how much bad stuff I eat. And what I drink. One weekend I had a half-marathon on Sunday. I didn't eat anything Saturday night. But I did drink. A lot. I did the half-marathon in under two hours, which was my goal. I finished in the top 12 percent of women." Other than running, Bui also likes to play volleyball. "But it's hard to find a place here in Dallas to play."
Bui says she hopes to open more restaurants down the line. "The same brand but different cuisines," she says, "And I would love to do reality TV. [Viewers] would think my family was a hoot. There would be lots of drinking eating, partying and running."
As for the trends Bui sees around town, she was interested to hear that doughnuts are on the rise. What would her favorite doughnut be? Well, she says, "Definitely something with bacon."