He still travels back to his home city of Barcelona every few months, to refresh his taste. And admittingly, for friends and the great weather as well. But today, famed Spanish chef “El” Willy Trullas Moreno is back in Ho Chi Minh City to visit his newest restaurant, Tomatito Saigon.
Sitting in his restaurant on a Sunday afternoon together with his partners Mike, Martijn and Julio, a band playing funky tunes in front of us, a lively crowd gathered in the restaurant area and happy faces all around, it soon becomes clear to us that the non-stop good vibes are a direct reflection of the restaurant’s creator. In short, the stage is set to learn more about Tomatito, a lively newcomer in the now booming international restaurant scene in Vietnam.
A Story of Journeys
Crafting his trade in Barcelona, France and New York, it was a wine ambassadorship that landed Willy in Shanghai in 2008 where he opened his first restaurant El Willy and later its more approachable and casual “younger brother” Tomatito. Its name is taken from Spanish Flamenco guitarist José Fernández Torres, whose nickname “little tomato“ felt perfect for this fun-filled concept that is equal parts authentic Spanish food, 80’s pop culture-inspired decor, and sexiness (we keep hearing this throughout the interview).
This lively and festive concept caught on in Shanghai and was quickly followed by a second restaurant in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is much more sophisticated in its taste, but it’s still China in a way. The lack of real competition at the time, however, meant that we had the opportunity to experiment with the menu and build out the idea, to learn and refine,” says Willy.
When Willy took the concept to the Philippines in 2017 however, things really changed. Here, he found a dining audience that enthusiastically welcomed the “sexy” tapas experience. While the national cuisine of this country is already Spanish-inspired, most of the food isn’t fresh or all that rich in flavor – almost the opposite of what Willy was used to back home. “To me, it didn’t really feel like there was a true food culture, but there was a total sense of openness to trying new things. And no one was doing modern tapas. So we brought the freshness, the color… and the sexiness.” And it worked, big time.
Landing in Saigon
Willy doesn’t like sitting still. He’s a firm believer of the idea that standing still is going backward. You must keep moving in order to stay fresh. It wasn’t long before he was eager for a new challenge. He found that challenge after his long-time friends and fellow F&B veterans Martijn Vermaire and Mike Beumkes invited him over to Saigon to see if there was an opportunity to work together on bringing his sexy tapas to Vietnam.
“Actually, my first visit to Ho Chi Minh City was in 2011. I loved the place. It felt so truly authentic. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the people. Everything made me fall in love with it. But for me, as an entrepreneur, it wasn’t ready yet. Coming back in 2016, I saw the changes this city was going through. While local markets and street vendors were humming along as always, I noticed the coming of luxury brands, impressive new buildings, a more international audience, and new restaurant offerings. I felt like it was time.”
Obsessed with serving the customer, he admits that he was still a bit worried about landing in yet another market. “As a culinaire entrepreneur, you never really know what will work and what won’t,” he freely admits. Knowing that he would be partnering with Martijn and Mike, therefore, made all the difference. These two friends met over 15 years ago back in their motherland of The Netherlands. Inspired by the uprise in new international dining options that Willy also spotted, they had already been looking for an exciting new concept to bring to Saigon. And Tomatito was just that.
Mike still remembers when he first discovered Willy in Shanghai, at a time when he brought busloads of business partners to his restaurants. “Coming into his restaurants always felt different from any other place I’d take people. There was the sense of palpable excitement, the type that can only come from a chef/owner that truly believes in what he is doing. So I was thrilled that I could bring that to Saigon, the place that I’ve loved for over 20 years.”
That’s not the only reason Tomatito feels like such a natural fit for Saigon. The fresh produce, meats and fish, the friendly crowds, the prevalence of quality food and above all, Vietnam’s sharing culture made it possible to get even closer to what Willy originally envisioned for the restaurant. “The size of the dishes is different here compared to the first restaurants. In Shanghai and Hong Kong the preference is more for small private sizes but sharing food from big plates is completely ingrained in the Vietnamese culture. Making meals a time to really connect with large groups of people is the rule, just like in Spain.”
The Tomatito space, located on 171 Calmette Street, walking distance from the Ben Thanh market and above Vietnam’s hippest chocolate brand Maison Marou, is as festive as it is vast, counting 300 square meters with even more colorful decorations. The decor, most of it in Spanish red and designed by Willy’s brother, is an homage to the Spanish bars found in the 1980’s, relaxed and funky.
A Chef’s Attention to Detail
Of course, a restaurant can’t just depend on its “design laurels”. The food simply needs to be good. And good, it is. Saigon’s head chef Julio Gomez was the perfect complement for this team of culinary brothers-in-arms. This Mexico-born chef worked in restaurants since he was 13 and finally landed the head chef job at Tomatito Shanghai. When Tomatito started getting serious about opening in Ho Chi Minh City, Chef Julio came over to run not only the kitchen but also join as a business partner.
Julio contributed a great deal to the finer details of how the Saigon outlet is run and his lively presence can really make it a night out. He says he found a home in Saigon. “You can move as much as you want, but there’s only going to be one home. For me, home is where I feel most connected to a place and how comfortable I feel. The moment you feel comfortable, you’ll also do your best work. That’s why I’m working every single day to make this place a home for me and the team.”
His attention to detail speaks in his dishes, like his favorite, the Pulpo a la Tomatito (grilled octopus, Tomatito style.) “This dish literally takes days, because we believe that great taste always comes from the little things. Using Spanish and Japanese techniques, we choose just the center of the tentacle to give the dish a nice bite, with a chunky texture and of course – a sexy look. We confit our potatoes for around five hours at very low temperatures in a fragrant and aromatic spiced Spanish olive oil and we macerate our smoked chili for at least four days to give it this delicate and sophisticated taste, with its bright color perfectly matching our homemade garlic mayo.”
On the Menu
Beyond the grilled octopus, Tomatito offers a wide range of authentic (and of course, sexy) tapas. Rather than going for modern takes, or bringing infusion elements, the menu covers the typical small bites that are so familiar to any Spaniard, or those who have enjoyed their cuisine before.
To start, there are the chacineria (cold cuts), laterio (tinned goods), montaditos (snacks to start, like the “Montadito de gambas”) or sexy gamba sliders, and frituras (deep-fried goods such as the croquetas de Ibéricos – croquettes filled with Iberian cured meat and fresh calamari.
Larger dishes include sopa boba (soups), pescados (fishes), verdes (salads), carne (meat), and arroces (rice). And of course, there’s a wide selection of dulce tentacion (desserts).
Not sure what to choose? Let the partners guide you with their favorite dishes:
Willy: “I love the salmon T.N.T, which is filled with sour cream and mojito blush. The name says it all … one bite delivers an explosion of flavor.”
Martijn: “For me, it’s the Mi Causa, which combined smoked mashed potato, lime mayo, crispy corn, slow cooked octopus and Criolla sauce.”
Mike: “If you want to try something unique, go for the Filete con Airbag, sexy air baguettes with cheese and topped with tenderloin steak.”
Julio: “The grilled octopus I talked about before. This dish is so unique that we even decided to hand-carry the plates for it from Shanghai.”
Prices range from 56,000 VND (about 2.50 USD) for the tomato-bread and 400,000 VND (about 16 USD) for 60-70 grams of cold cuts to 200-300,000 VND (9-13 USD) for single meat and fish dishes.
A Sip of Vietnam
While the tapas are authentic, only tweaked marginally to reflect the locally available fresh produce and the taste of the Vietnamese market, what is truly local is the beer. Not satisfied with just offering the usual options, Martijn reached out to local craft brewer Winking Seal. “I wanted something that fit the concept, yet was totally original and locally inspired.”
Together with brewmaster Andrej Pázmány and owner Mark Nerney, he toyed around with different ingredients before landing on the perfect balance between the traditional bia blanches from Spain, and the local taste of fresh lemongrass from Long An, Vietnam. The sexy “Bia Tomatitos” is such a hit, that it’s most likely going to be landing in the bars of the other locations soon as well.
While beer is important in tapas culture, there are of course other options also. Tomatito serves a wide selection of Spanish wines and classic drinks, such as the freshly made Sangria that has been touted as some of the best by some of the restaurant’s repeat customers (and your humble writer).
Food for Family
Working in a restaurant is hard work. So besides taking good care of his diners, it’s just as important to create a sense of joy within the team that serves them. For the four partners, integrity is a key pillar. Fun and delivering excellence are others. “It’s not a team, it’s a family. A family with one team, and one dream. But above all, passion,” Willy says.
The brotherhood is palpable. Together and individually, they’ve traveled abundantly, worked hard for many years, and still are eager to treat every guest like it was their first. Every person that walks through the door is showered with good food and good vibes. Every guest truly becomes part of the family. So whether you’re a Spaniard traveling Vietnam, a local with a taste for something special, or just anyone looking for a place to have not just a meal, but a little party, come to join.
Or in short, as Willy says: “Here, everyone’s a papi.”
Tomatito Saigon, 171 Calmette, Phường Nguyễn Thái Bình, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh Reservations usually not required but welcome for the weekends: +84 2869 388 864
Check Tomatito’s Facebook page for the latest events and special lunch and dinner offerings