Dat Truong Interview: High Tech Exec to Best Pho and "Grandma's Secret"
Diana Landau | September 07, 2023
This week Carl interviews Dat Truong, a former Silicon Valley Techie who left the big paychecks behind in search of something new, something fun, something more meaningful. Dat, who currently owns Lela's Bistro and Grandma's Secret in Portland, OR, started his career on Wall Street, working with the likes of Wall Street Systems, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and others. He then pivoted to Silicon Valley where he contributed to several software start-ups that were later acquired. Now at age 53, Dat says he's living life on his own terms and is loving his new endeavors as an entrepreneur and restaurateur.
When Dat was 5 years old, his family immigrated from Vietnam to New York, just days before the fall of Saigon in 1975. He says his father, who he aspires to be like, was the most selfless, hard-working person he has ever known, working as an engineer while Dat's mother managed the family. After college in New York, Dat lived in Manhattan and worked on Wall Street.
Dat felt like the black sheep in his family. He was always very social and outgoing, as opposed to his studious siblings. These qualities served him well in his high-tech career in management. "You have to learn to work with people; communicate tactfully, be a good listener and know your audience." In 1997, ready to escape the hectic lifestyle of NYC, a friend encouraged Dat to move cross-country to Silicon Valley to join an internet security start-up.
After 20 years in Silicon Valley high tech, Dat moved to Portland to leave the hustle and bustle of the bay area, searching again for something new, something more meaningful, something that would fit with his healthy lifestyle. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do next. "It was a real struggle contemplating different directions I could take." In Portland, he found Lela's Bistro and loved their Grandma’s beef pho so much he ended up going there 4-5 times a week. "Their food is so clean, so deeply flavorful."
After several weeks, Lela's owner asked Dat if he had a job, because he was there so much. After telling her he was contemplating a new career that aligns with his healthy lifestyle, she told him to buy Lela’s and they'd work for him! Never owning a restaurant before, Dat's "Aha" moment came when he decided to take his own advice and embrace his sense of curiosity, of which running a healthy restaurant was one of them. And the rest is history. "It was one of the best decisions of my life. We provide honest wholesome meals, made from scratch by Grandma Chef, to a lovely community.”
Dat learned to hire genuine, kind -hearted people. "If you surround yourself with good people, a good team, good things will happen," he says. Grandma, (Co Ngan, who makes the amazing beef pho), told Dat she used to sneak out in her 20's to underground bars in Saigon to satisfy her curiosity and sense of adventure. Another "Aha" moment came for Dat. He wanted to celebrate Grandma’s younger years. He created this wonderful subterranean mid-century cocktail bar, reminiscent of a French Colonial bar in Saigon, with vintage glassware, black and white photos of a young Grandma, soft music and conviviality. At Grandma's Secret, a blue light shines when they're open but there's no sign, relying on bringing in patrons by word of mouth. It's no surprise that the bar has already been featured in Eater Portland.
Dat says two things have helped him in his new endeavors. "I've let go of my ego and I stopped caring how others judge me. Removing those two aspects of who I am has been liberating. I can just be myself!" We think that's great life advice too.
Dat Truong's (un)retirement advice:
Pursue your curiosity. What drives you inside? Stop saying "What if?" and try it!
Pursue aspects of your lifestyle that are important to you. I love healthy eating and meeting new people. Lela's and Grandma's Secret are part of that.
Surround yourself with good-hearted souls. This is important in work and in life.
Have genuine intentions. It's a reflection of you!
Diana Landau is the Content Wrangler for Pickleball Media. After 15 years in corporate marketing, in 2012 she pivoted to write and wrangle content for Niche Media's weekly blog. She now manages the "I Used to be Somebody" blog.