When we think about Oklahoma City’s Asian District, we think about all those giant bowls of pho coming out of the kitchens and all those delicious banh mi just waiting for someone to crunch through the baguette to find warm roasted pork and slivers of jalapeno waiting inside.
But if you’re going to celebrate the impact the Asian District has on the city, you absolutely must talk about Super Cao Nguyen, which celebrates its 40th anniversary Saturday, June 15, with an event aimed straight at the foodies who have made this grocery store an Oklahoma City institution.
The History of Super Cao Nguyen
So, you might wonder how brothers Ba and Hai Luong ended up running a massive Asian grocery store in Oklahoma City. It started with a war.
A pair of refugees from Vietnam came to Oklahoma City after the fall of Saigon and opened the original Cao Nguyen in the mid-1970s. They were originally from the Cao Nguyen region of Vietnam (thus the name) and graduate students at Oklahoma City University.
They were not, however, Ba and Hai’s parents.
That would be Tri and Kien Luong, who you can still find at the grocery store daily, unless their sons can get them to take a vacation.
Tri and Kien were also refugees from Vietnam, where they ran a store. But instead of Oklahoma City, when they came to the U.S., they lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It was there the Luongs had their own business supplying the other refugees with staples of Vietnamese cooking, like dried shrimp. His mother made homemade steamed buns.
“Refugees worked like crazy,” said Hai. “They had no time to cook because they worked so many jobs, so we cooked for them.”
The original owners of Cao Nguyen wanted to sell and, having supplied the Luongs with product for their business in Arkansas, they wanted to sell it to them. So, in 1979, the whole family came to Oklahoma City.
The original shop was small, sharing a strip mall at 24th and Military with a health food store, a veterinarian, and others. But with Oklahoma City a home to so many refugees, it became a social hub and quite a successful little shop. As the other businesses in the strip center went away, the Luongs would buy the next space and knock down the wall. Pretty soon, they had the whole place to themselves.
In 2003, the family realized they had outgrown their original building and went ahead with a massive step—they would build their own. The new, much larger store was more than a market. It was a supermarket, and that’s how it became Super Cao Nguyen, said Hai.
Why Super Cao Nguyen Matters
I certainly hope you’re not the heartless type to say, “Who cares?” when hearing the story of a family that left their war-torn country and made a new (and extremely successful) life in Oklahoma. But if you want to know the impact and importance of the store in Oklahoma City, look no further than their Friday afternoon customers.
Super Cao Nguyen is an amazing grocery store. They have a little bit of everything and a lot of everything else. And that is one reason the place is so beloved by chefs.
One of the first to fall prey to the shop’s wiles was Alain Buthion, the culinary force behind La Baguette Bistro, because his bakery partner began supplying Super Cao Nguyen with baguettes.
(Why do Vietnamese people eat so many baguettes, other than the fact that they’re delicious? Probably because Vietnam was under French rule from 1887-1954 and they got used to the bread.)
“I’m here on Friday and sometimes another day, but I’m here at least once a week for sure,” Buthion said. “You don’t just come here to shop. You come for inspiration.”
Russ Johnson, owner and chef at Ludivine, said Ba and Hai bend over backwards to take care of customers—especially chefs.
“Ba and Hai will always take the extra time to talk about product or product needs, take you in the back to inspect product, or use their incredibly wide-reaching and volume-based connections to bring in something really special and then sell it to you at cost,” he said. “All for the sake of experimentation, supporting local chefs, and a genuine interest in elevating the OKC food culture. They're also incredibly generous and always quick to donate product for charity events and the like. They're just a tremendous asset to chefs, home cooks, and the community in general and our city is fortunate to have them.”
Humankind Hospitality culinary director Ryan Parrott said he’s been a weekly customer of Super Cao Nguyen for almost 25 years.
“I never fail to find a new product or food that I have never heard of previously,” he said. “Not to mention that I get personal service from the ownership and they are constantly telling me about new items or culinary trends in other parts of the country or world.”
Tamashii Ramen House co-founder Wakana Sebacher said Super Cao Nguyen has done an amazing job becoming a truly Asian market, with niche products from several countries available in Oklahoma City.
“On top of that, it is run by great people. You couldn't ask for better,” she said.
Della Terra Pasta owner Chris Becker said he’s always amazed by the incredible range of products.
Vuong Nguyen, who has too many jobs to list them all, but is owner and chef at Ur/Bun, said, “I love the freshness and varieties of their products. And the fact that the family is still running it together.”
The 40th anniversary of Super Cao Nguyen coincides with another big event, the Asian Night Market Festival (6 p.m.-midnight in Military Park, 2520 N. Classen Boulevard.), which is celebrating its second year. As usual, Super Cao Nguyen is taking part in the festival, but they’re having their own fun earlier in the day.
From 1-6 p.m., the store will have free samples, giveaways, and—pay attention, foodies—they’ll have meals created by Super Cao Super Fans (aka some of the best chefs in the state). Buy an $8 ticket at the door, with proceeds donated to the Homeless Alliance of OKC), and choose from this murderer’s row of chefs:
Vuong Nguyen (Ur/Bun)
Kevin Lee (The Social Order, Gogi Go!)
Alain Buthion (La Baguette Bistro)
Koji Omori (Tokyo Japanese Restaurant)
Chris Becker (Della Terra Pasta)
Robbie Vernon (Hacienda Tacos)
Jeff Chanchaleune (Goro Ramen, Gun)
Russ Johnson (Ludivine)
Wakana and Matt Sebacher (Tamashii Ramen House)
Thai Tien (Grand House)
Kathyrn Mathis (Big Truck Tacos, Back Door Barbecue, Pizzeria Gusto)
Melissa Aust (Stella Modern Italian Cuisine)
Shelby Sieg (The Pritchard)
Hai Luong said it's a chance to have a big party, give customers something new, and to celebrate all the great chefs who have made Super Cao Nguyen such an integral part of Oklahoma City's food scene.
If you love food—and why are you reading this website if you don’t?—then I expect to see you at Super Cao Nguyen this Saturday.