True Fusion at Eighty8 Asian Bistro
Fortunately for Cary, what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas
Story by Corbie Hill
Photos by Ginny Williams
That's one place Dai Nguyen found culinary inspiration, after all. He was at a sake convention in that Nevada city, and there were truffles at several booths. Nguyen is a student of flavor, and he was excited. He wanted to work out a recipe of his own that incorporated truffles, but didn’t cost a fortune. So he came home from Las Vegas and made truffle aioli, which he serves with sliced jalapeño on seared tuna with fresh wasabi.
You can try this creation, Tuna88, at Eighty8 Asian Bistro, where Nguyen is chef and owner. It’s a prime example of what he achieves in his restaurant. Rather than serve straightforward Asian dishes, Eighty8 boldly fuses international flavors. Geography and authenticity don’t concern Nguyen. To him, flavor is king.
“Fusion, to me, means infusing different cultures. Definitely a filet mignon is an American dish, but we do an Asian coffee rub with some Asian spices, papaya spice, and a ginger reduction sauce,” Nguyen explains. “Even our sushi rolls, we try to be creative with. One of the ones I play around with is a peanut butter and jelly sushi roll.”
Yes, you read that right.
Nguyen’s always been able to play with flavor. He grew up in Durham, and his mom taught him to cook. When he’d ask what was in one of her dishes, she never responded with measurements. She’d only say which spices, leaving him to figure out on his own how to balance them against each other. That intuitive understanding of flavor, honed over 18 years in the restaurant industry, has won Nguyen some impressive accolades. His previous restaurant, Greenville’s Wasabi 88, was the Pitt County selection for Our State magazine’s list of 100 places to eat in North Carolina.
“Down there is barbecue country,” Nguyen recalls. “For them to pick us over B’s Barbecue and everything else [in Greenville], that was a great honor.”
Yet he sold Wasabi 88 and relocated, opening Eighty8 Asian Bistro in February 2017. Some of his Greenville regulars have made the hour-plus drive, just for his food. It’s almost on a weekly basis that Nguyen sees a familiar face, he says. Yet in Cary, he knows he has to up his game. There are more international restaurants here, but he doesn’t see as much fusion – not free-for-all international fusion on the level that drives him, anyway.
So he makes barbecue sauce with sake instead of bourbon, blending eastern and western North Carolina styles in the process. He makes sushi burritos and plays with flavors from international culinary traditions that otherwise just wouldn’t intersect. And when he does make a traditional Asian dish, he makes it on his own terms. Egg drop soup, that eminently satisfying staple of Chinese restaurants, takes on an entirely new and nuanced character in Nguyen’s kitchen. The stock for his seafood egg drop soup is made of lobster, shrimp, and crab. Egg drop is a simple dish – it’s mainly just egg and broth – and by giving the broth a little coastal personality, Nguyen demonstrates what can happen when you really take fusion seriously. It’s good soup.
“That’s what our menu’s about and that’s what we’re about – trying to incorporate the fusion of different dishes,” Nguyen says.
Eighty8 Asian Bistro
1077 Darrington Dr. Cary