First of all, let’s just get this over with. It’s fun to say Bun Mee. It rolls of the tongue like a cherry flavored-candy doesn't it? The name is actually the phonetic spelling of bánh mi, a the Vietnamese sandwich comprised of a French baguette filled with savory combinations of meat, veggies and sauce, and a popular street food in Denise Tran’s native Vietnam. It’s also the name of Tran's San Francisco sandwich shop on trendy Fillmore Street that opened in 2011. The reviewers have raved, locals have lined up, and now the petit restaurant and its equally petit owner are expanding, opening a new location this month in the city’s financial district.
“I want to celebrate the humble Vietnamese sandwich by taking traditional preparations and making it higher quality and better tasting as well as offer modern interpretations of bánh mi,” she says.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Tran came to the United States with her mother in the late 1970s as a war refugee and grew up in New Orleans. A self-described overachiever, she attended law school and graduated with a joint graduate degree (JD and MBA) from Willamette University in Oregon. Although she had a successful career practicing law for five years in Seattle, followed by a stint in New York City, a future filled with demanding billable-hour requirements wasn’t inspiring. What was, however, was a tasty porchetta sandwich she bit into at shop in the East Village---a lightbulb moment, when she asked herself, 'why not the bánh mi?'
“I grew up eating Vietnamese sandwiches,” Tran said. “Our family moved to an area of New Orleans East that was predominately Vietnamese when I was 13. The community there was self-sustaining and isolated from the rest of the city. It had its own farmers’ market where people who grew fresh organic vegetables from their gardens could sell their extra produce, and my mom would get all the greens for the week. I would eat at least one bánh mi a day after school.”
Tran calls her mother "an amazing cook who could whip together meals without recipes," and her father, she says, managed a Cajun-Creole restaurant called the Old Coffee Pot in New Orleans.
After two years of research that included a trip to Vietnam, food tours on both coasts, countless hours in the kitchen with her mother, who is affectionately known as Momma Tran, she introduced San Francisco to one of her favorite things to eat ---bánh mis that blend Tran family recipes with California-influenced takes on Vietnamese salads and rice plates. Trans father also remains a daily inspiration.
“My father was a passionate person who was great around people,” she says. “He and I always talked about opening our own restaurant together someday. Unfortunately, he passed away before I started Bun Mee, but his spirit is very much a part of what we’re striving to do, which is to make sure people truly enjoy themselves and feel welcomed.”
Start by saying Bun Mee. It really is fun.
The Foodie 5
1. What is your favorite food memory from childhood?
Any comfort foods that my mother made because she cooked a lot. There was one soup called Bún bò Huế that I particularly loved. It’s a spicy beef soup that is different from Pho and originates from Central Vietnam where my mom is from. It takes nearly half a day to make. I would get to help her grocery shop the day before and dice vegetables and ingredients for the stock. It was a combination of being able to do something collaborative with my mom and tasting the delicious food that we made together that made this such a special treat.
2. You’re moving to a new kitchen in 5 minutes and can only take one gadget along with you. What do you grab and why?
I would take my immersion blender so I could make soups, stocks and sauces.
3. No one’s looking---What is your secret food fetish?
I love fried chicken from Popeyes. In New Orleans, Popeyes was as plentiful as McDonald's but a lot tastier. I don't eat it often but every once in a while, when no one's looking, I head over to Popeyes on Divisadero and grab a 2- piece spicy chicken with dark meat and a buttermilk biscuit. I make a point of not telling my husband about it.
4. Fill in the blanks: “I’d like to see more _______________ on restaurant menus and a lot less ________________.”
I'd like to see more interesting use of local vegetables and vegetarian items and a few less burger joints. I think we've done everything we can with the burger.
5. Congratulations, you have carte blanche to dine in any city or country in the world! Where would you go and why?
Bangkok, because it’s easy on the wallet, customer service is amazing and the food, is always fresh and delicious. There is so much variety and street food is exceptional, as well.
If you'd like to be a featured foodie, or know one, please contact Kimberley Lovato at www.kimberleylovato.com