A “non la” is a conical leaf hat, an iconic image associated with Vietnam and probably the furthest image that comes to mind when one thinks of an American-style hamburger.
So is it a Vietnamese burger? Not exactly.
Nonla Burger, coming in October to 449 Bridge St. NW in Grand Rapids, offers both: traditional, 100% beef hamburgers and Vietnamese-inspired cuisine.
“We do a lot of unique quirky fun specials all the time,” said Nonla Burger co-owner Kyle Monk. “Like our version of a Reuben, a Philly cheese steak and — we don’t offer it every day, but — we have done breakfast burritos, too. Our chicken sandwich has a pickled veg, like what you’d get on a banh mi (traditional Vietnamese sandwich) or you can order things the ‘Nonla’ way, with cilantro, cucumbers and jalapeños which makes it more Vietnamese.”
The menu includes burgers, fries, shakes, plant-based hamburgers and plant-based chicken alternatives.
The Nonla Burger concept started as the brainchild of Monk and his childhood friend, Nonla Head Chef Johnny Nguyen, who is Vietnamese-American, Monk said.
The pair grew up near the beaches of Orange County, California, where burgers and tacos were a mainstay of their diets. They later became roommates in San Francisco and enjoyed cooking together for fun. Nguyen turned his passion for food into a career and became a chef.
Nguyen and Monk toyed with the idea of going into business together on a food truck in the Bay Area, but after crunching numbers, decided to forego pursuing the idea together.
Nguyen married a woman from southeast Michigan, Kelly, with whom he started a brick and mortar restaurant, Nonla Vietnamese Street Food, in Mattawan. Monk and his wife, Natashia, visited the Nguyens, and the couples decided to embark on a joint venture.
As Vietnamese food is heavily influenced by French colonialism, they endeavored to open a French American restaurant and started looking for locations in Kalamazoo. The building they found was a good investment, but it didn’t scream French cuisine. It had the look and feel of a burger stand. Thus Nonla Burger was born, and it was a hit.
They soon opened a second Nonla Burger in Kalamazoo, and by last November, the original restaurant in Mattawan was rebranded as Nonla Burger.
It’s been five years since Kyle and Natahsia moved to Kalamazoo. They travel to Grand Rapids often for dinner and “fell in love with the city,” especially the Bridge Street district where they decided to open a fourth Nonla Burger.
Nonla Burger Grand Rapids will be a bit different from the other three locations in that it will be much bigger in size and maybe include some “retro” arcade games, Monk said. Monk also is hopeful a state liquor license he’s applied for will be granted. If so, the aim is to take the alcohol and video game add-ons to the other Nonla Burgers downstate.
Monk and his team are aiming for opening in late October. Once open, hours will be 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.