Khanh “Connie” Nguyen’s first impressions of the Rio Grande Valley in 2008 were of a place she didn’t plan to stay long.
In the midst of the Great Recession, and buffeted by the upheaval of the banking industry where she worked in southern California, Nguyen’s mother advised she head to the Valley for a fresh start. Nguyen had family here and she decided it was worth a try.
“Too hot,” was something evident from the start, she said.
Maybe too slow as well when compared to the bustle and energy of Orange County. Food differences were another matter. It was Reynosa-style tacos versus the Tijuana-style Mexican food of southern California.
“I didn’t like it at first,” she said.
The Valley grew on her, though, and she would eventually be joined from California by her boyfriend-turned-husband Hoang “Michael” Nguyen. Once both were here, it was a 20-something couple with immigrant roots looking to turn ideas into opportunities. The will to succeed was there from the start.
Success With a Twist
They decided on something they called Snowbite. It opened in Edinburg in 2013 and featured tapas dishes and desserts with the twist of their Vietnamese heritage. Their offerings proved to be popular and they received growing encouragements from customers to develop a fuller food menu.
Snowbite would spring into a full menu featuring appetizers, soups, sandwiches, rice bowls and noodles of the Vietnam style that in some cases fuse with South Texas sensibilities. Connie and Michael moved their restaurant to Pharr in 2019 in the midst of all of the retail and entertainment development along Jackson Road and Expressway 77/83.
Their restaurant gained a following – and recognition. Texas Monthly recognized Snowbite’s fusion taco as one of the best in the Valley. Connie’s Sriracha wings placed first in a South Texas wing-fest competition.
An even bigger accolade would come in 2020. The Lower Rio Grande Valley District of the Small Business Administration named Snowbite as this year’s Minority Owned Small Business of the Year. It is an honor, the couple said, not only for themselves but more importantly for their mothers. Each came from Vietnam to provide a better life for their children.
“This is an honor to bring home for his mom and my mom,” said Connie Nguyen, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam at the age of 9. “They left everything they knew to come here for us and we feel indebted to them.”
Cooking Up Inspiration
The couple serves as the chief cooks and chefs at Snowbite. Michael grew up in California and brings a bit more of the American flavor to the more traditional dishes cooked up by Connie. They emphasize a flexibility to the tastes of their customers. They relish a Vietnamese-style restaurant with a menu they can connect with and visualize.
One section of the Snowbite menu features Bahn Mi selections. They are Vietnamese-style sandwiches of baguette bread with choices that include grilled pork, ginger soy chicken, fried boneless chicken and fried shrimp. There are rice bowls that include carrots and cilantro with meat choices like Vietnamese barbecue ribs and ginger soy chicken.
“This is not a full traditional Vietnamese restaurant,” Connie Nguyen said. “It’s a modern fusion Vietnamese eatery. The Valley lacks many different choices, and for us, this is something the Valley needs.”
The SBA award is a recognition of the couple’s hard work and foresight, with Michael Nguyen describing it as “a validation of all we’ve done to get here.” His wife sees it as another chapter of an immigrant family coming to America and pursuing its dreams.
“You come to America with an empty pocket,” Connie Nguyen said of her family arriving in the United States. “I cried when they told us about the award. Success for us is working with integrity and serving people with our hearts.”