Biz Beat

Big burgers and savory sandwiches await at Modesto’s new, and only, vegan cafe

When most people think about vegan food, they aren’t necessarily imagining juicy burgers and savory sandwiches.

But that’s exactly what you’ll find, and then some, at the new TNK Vegan Cafe just off downtown Modesto. The restaurant has opened earlier this month in the spot that recently housed Vegan Donut Gelato, which closed abruptly in February. TNK owner TJ Nguyen was a partner in the doughnut and gelato shop, which had been open for a little over a year. When it closed he decided to reopen as a cafe with a more diversified menu.

“A lot of foods can be vegan. We want to show people that when you talk about vegan food it is not just vegetables and beans,” said Nguyen, who along with his wife has been vegan since 1993. “You can have hundreds of different dishes.”

Vegans eat a diet of plant-based foods and abstain from all animal products including meat, eggs, dairy and honey. All of the meat substitutes at the cafe are soy-based, including their burger and chicken patties. TNK is Modesto’s only dedicated vegan cafe.

AA THK Vegan 08
Andy Alfaro

Nguyen said the sweets shop he ran before had too limited a menu to sustain, but with the cafe he hopes to broaden his customer base and get them to return more often. Already it seems to be working.

“I can justify eating a sandwich every day, but not a doughnut,” said customer Stacey Coufal, who has already frequented the cafe several times since it debuted July 5.

The menu offers soy-based burgers, “chicken” sandwiches, breakfast sandwiches and Asian entrees like Mongolian “beef” and “shrimp” spring rolls. It also serves specialty drinks like smoothies, teas, and Thai iced coffee, all without using dairy products. The restaurant plans to add more items to the menu and rotate its offerings with the seasons.

AA THK Vegan 07
Andy Alfaro

Nguyen makes many of the sauces from scratch from his own recipes. Some of the other dishes draw on Nguyen’s Vietamese heritage. In the past he has owned vegan places in Fresno and Merced.

The restaurant is a family affair with Nguyen’s son, Tim Nguyen, and his girlfriend, Monique Zambrano, and other relatives. The cafe is named after Tim and Monique’s daughters and TJ’s granddaughters — 3-year-old Thien Kim, or TK, and 1-year-old Thien Nga, or TN. The girls, who are also vegan, visit the cafe often and their caricatures can be seen on the restaurant’s sign.

AA THK Vegan 05
Two sisters, Faye, 3, left, and Zireael, 1, who inspired the name of the THK Vegan Cafe: Tale of Two Sisters on Needham Street in Modesto, Calif., Wednesday, July11, 2018. Andy Alfaro

The semi-circle shaped restaurant seats about 18 inside and another 20 on its patio overlooking Graceada Park. Just don’t expect anymore doughnuts, or gelato. While his former partner still runs a Vegan Donut Gelato shop in Oakland, Nguyen said his doughnut slinging days are over.

Still, for those who might be wary of giving vegan food a shot, he said the proof is in the product.

“We know what to do (with vegan food) because we love to eat. First they have to eat it and then they will believe,” he said.

AA THK Vegan 03
Andy Alfaro

TNK Vegan Cafe, at 330 Needham St. in Modesto, is open for lunch from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. and dinner 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday. For more information call 209-567-2232 or visit

Marijke Rowland: 209-578-2284, @marijkerowland