Mama’s Back (And In Charge) At District One

“Mama” Crystina Nguyen w/ Spiny Lobster

Sitting in a booth near the kitchen at District One with the decade-old restaurant’s newly named operating partner, Crystina Nguyen, I can’t help but reminisce about the role this Vietnamese restaurant just off Spring Mountain Road has played in the emergence of Las Vegas’ off-Strip dining scene. Nguyen and I have each borne witness to it. She served as the restaurant’s general manager and director of operations from 2014 until the COVID shutdown. I’ve been reporting on the restaurant and its various chefs for the ten years it’s been in operation.

Where The Industry Gathered And Planned

Cocktails are an integral part of District One’s offerings

We each know firsthand how, during the first half of its decade-long history, District One (D1 to its regulars) was a preferred after-work hangout for some of The Strip’s top chefs, bartenders and servers. It was a place where the hospitality community came to eat and drink into the wee hours of the night – drawn by a top-notch bar program, Vietnamese cuisine unlike anything else in the valley, and the camaraderie of their peers.

“What we envisioned was a little outside of the box of what Vietnamese cuisine was,” Nguyen explains, referring to the original operating team and the restaurant’s first executive chef, Khai Vu.

“A lot of people were calling it fusion. But it was [also] a lot of love and passion [for] our hospitality community and Chinatown.”

And as the F&B pros who patronized the restaurant began thinking about their futures, this is where they spitballed new ideas and hatched big plans – plans that produced some of Las Vegas’s most successful venues. Nguyen remembers those conversations well.

“I remember Anthony Jamison and Nathan Grates, when they took over Sand Dollar. That [conversation] was at Booth Number 7.”

And when the pioneering Chinatown restaurant Sparrow + Wolf was training its staff pre-opening, D1 allowed the entire team to train there before Sparrow was fully licensed.

“I love to see everything […] created here and to see everyone move on and do amazing things,” says Nguyen.

However, in the years since COVID, District One has not fared as well as some of the establishments imagined within its walls. Founding chef Khai Vu relocated to Saigon to open a high-end steakhouse. Nguyen moved on to create a series of pop-ups and culinary residencies under her “This Mama’s House” monicker and other names. And the after-work industry crowd that once patronized the restaurant either outgrew the late-night scene or found it elsewhere.

Celebrity Chef Flirtations

Earlier this year, District One’s owners seemed to recognize that things had changed and embarked on a bit of a reboot. Chef Tu David Phu, an award-winning celebrity chef and friend of Khai Vu (who remains in Vietnam), was brought in to breathe some new life into the menu. Nguyen was asked to return to oversee the bar program.

In March, Phu spoke to Neon News about the new dishes he was introducing, inspired by the street food he encountered while traveling in Vietnam. He seemed excited about the partnership. And yet, just a few months later, Phu is out. And Nguyen has been placed in charge of both the front and the back of the house, with full control over the menu.

“We are on good terms,” Nguyen says of her relationship with Phu.

“It’s just that Chef doesn’t live in Las Vegas, and he travels a lot. And he promotes a lot of different brands, and himself, and cookbooks, and all kinds of things. And I believe that the partners knew that someone had to be here that really cared about the food and the staff – not saying that he didn’t care, but he wasn’t present enough.”

Back To Square One

A few of Phu’s creations, including his Shaken Beef Pho, will remain on the menu. But for the most part, Nguyen says she’s “going back to square one” with the menu.

“I wouldn’t be here unless those [early] days were truly near and dear to me. So those are things that I still want to recapture here.”

Oysters on the half-shell

She promises Vietnamese cuisine that will “offer the true flavors of what the cuisine is supposed to be.” Highlights include a monstrous Big Bone Soup recently featured in the L.A. Times, lots of grilled items, fresh seafood such as razor clams and scallops, and the restaurant’s longtime signature dish, Lobster Pho (using the Maine lobster Nguyen grew up eating in Boston).

The chef introduced me to her new take on Beef Carpaccio: raw beef drizzled in truffle oil fish sauce and garnished with fresh herb and red onion salad. When I returned for dinner a few nights later, she presented me with a meal of new and familiar dishes that began with oysters on the half-shell with ponzu, onion relish and tobiko; large seasoned grilled scallops with fish sauce; gluten-free fried calamari; and chicken skewers with sticky rice. From there, we proceeded to chicken fat fried rice topped with a fried egg, green beans sauteed with pork and cilantro, and a catch-of-the-day spiny lobster slathered in a flavorful sauce. We enjoyed a flavored crème brule from local startup Crème by ME for dessert. (You can hear an interview with Crème by ME’s Matthew Effendy on the May 31, 2024, episode of the Food and Loathing podcast.)

District One’s bar continues to pour premium wines, use premium brands in its well drinks, and offer ultra-premium and rare options like Louis XIII Cognac and multiple expressions of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey. Nguyen hopes to eventually recreate the vibrant bar scene that once rivaled the kitchen in popularity.

“I’m looking to bring back the bar business at night,” she says. “But one step at a time. I’m really just filling in the cracks and the foundations that need to be filled in right now.”

While the current reboot is ongoing, Nguyen is already excited about showing it off.

“We are looking to do a 10th-anniversary promotion in August, when the locals are back in town, to really bring people back to celebrate the ten years that we’ve been here,” she says.