When you’re craving late-night bites, but cringe at the idea of fast food, Khanh Nguyen has two great cuisines for you. Pho and other Vietnamese-inspired snacks are available at DaLat, and filling pizza creations are available at ZaLat.
Nguyen grew up in Vietnam, arriving to the States after being picked up by American battleships at the fall of Saigon in 1975.
“I did not know the [English] language at all,” Nguyen says. “But because of the French influence in Vietnam, we all went to French schools. I swear, the entirety of all of my French vocabulary went away in our boat ride from Vietnam to America.”
Nguyen first landed in Boston before heading to Virginia. He eventually moved to Houston, where he studied at the University of Houston, and then went to law school at the University of Texas.
Before entering the restaurant business, Nguyen worked as a corporate security attorney and a corporate counsel. He later left the realm of law to launch a software startup with his brother, where they developed internet claims processing software for hospitals. Nguyen, however, had plans to launch a software company of his own, so he decided to take a sabbatical.
“When I stayed home for that year,” Nguyen says, “I told my wife that I would pick up a chore. I said, ‘How about I cook dinner?’ She said, ‘You don’t cook anything.’ She said, ‘You make bad ramen and eggs.’ And I said, ‘I’ll figure it out.’ I have really bad adult ADD. If you know people with ADD, once we get passionate about something, we just get hyper-focused.”
Although cooking was something fairly new to Nguyen, it was clear he was in love with crafting culinary creations. It soon became his purpose.
“I started cooking, and I just went crazy with it,” Nguyen says. “Every day, I would jump out of bed and look up recipes. I’m Vietnamese, so naturally, I love Vietnamese food. I started cooking four- or five-course meals every day.”
Nine months into his sabbatical, Nguyen told his wife he wanted to open a pho restaurant. Three months later, he opened DaLat. When scoping out locations, Nguyen wasn’t entirely sure what to consider. Luckily, he found a place on North Fitzhugh Avenue that was previously occupied by a restaurant.
“I knew absolutely nothing about restaurants when I started looking,” Nguyen says. “And I didn’t even know anybody in the business I could bounce ideas off of. I just went on the internet and looked for available properties. This space was ready to go, so I took it.”
DaLat proved to be popular enough, but Nguyen found himself eager to create more. Perhaps one of the most life-changing inspirations hit him whenever the pizza restaurant next door to DaLat shut down.
“It didn’t last very long,” Nguyen says. “They probably went down in about six months. But when they tapped out, I just thought I’d see if I could make pizza. I spent six months creating all the recipes. I think we spent six months on the dough, tweaking hydration levels. We spent a month on the sauce and starting building the pizzas one-by-one.”
In July 2015, Nguyen opened ZaLat, which has since been a Dallas favorite for late-night pizza. Among the fan favorites are the pho shizzle, a pizza made with chicken, red bell peppers, caramelized onions, cilantro, basil, hoisin and cilantro swirl ($18.99). Another popular pizza is the elote, made with corn, lemon pepper seasoning, cilantro, Valentina swirl and Sriracha ($14.99.)
As of now, there are six ZaLat locations, and Nguyen plans to open more locations in the future. One of the more recent locations is in downtown Plano.
“We’ve gotten a little bit more sophisticated in terms of how we actually look for locations, in terms of demographics,” Nguyen says. “I really hadn’t spent that much time on the downtown Plano streets, but it was just such a cool and really neat space.”
Both ZaLat and DaLat are known for having laid-back atmospheres. A 2019 article by The Dallas Morning News even referred to ZaLat as a “stoner pizza joint,” a title Nguyen finds humorous.
“I’m a night owl,” Nguyen says. “All of our businesses are open late. When I opened up DaLat, just being a night owl, there was nothing available in Dallas during late nights in 2012. You’re either messing with fast food places or a couple of places that are open 24 hours a day. I really wanted to have a place that stayed open late, just for me, if nothing else. We started getting on people’s 4/20 lists, so it kind of just naturally evolved.”
Nguyen says many of his customers are service industry workers, as well as after-club crowds. In the eight years since he first opened DaLat, he has learned a lot about the service industry and has made it his mission to improve the quality of life for his employees.
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He’s also created a comic book for ZaLat, in which all of his employees are imagined as super heroes. He even provides health benefits and insurance for his employees, as well as stock and equity options. Many of Nguyen’s employees often opt to get a ZaLat tattoo after their first year of working at ZaLat.
“One of our main missions is to really make a difference in the lives of the service industry folks that work for us,” Nguyen says. “We've put so much effort into designing a culture that really takes care of them. Our deal with our employees is … we’re going to pay you as much as we can so that you’ve got something decent to live on.”
DaLat, 2537 N. Fitzhugh Ave. (East Dallas ). Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
ZaLat, 2519 N. Fitzhugh Ave. (East Dallas). Open 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily. Other locations are in the Cedars, Plano, Denton and Fort Worth.