See how this family preserves their history through food like Granny’s Egg Rolls, fried quail, crab asparagus soup and a seafood hot pot

By David ArkinNovember 14, 2023November 18th, 2023No Comments

See how this family preserves their history through food like Granny’s Egg Rolls, fried quail, crab asparagus soup and a seafood hot pot

By Tori Couch
Photos by Nancy Farrar

Hao Tran’s family did not understand how turkey and a holiday called Thanksgiving fit together when they first arrived in the United States as immigrants from Vietnam.

“We’ve never eaten turkey in our life,” Tran said. “We tried to adapt to the Western culture. For us, eating communally was really a luxury. When we would do this, my mom would just bring out the best.”

Tran recalls how she would argue with her two siblings, as young children are prone to do, over who should get the drumstick off a qual or who would have the honor of pulling the valuable meat out of a small crab that was in the seafood hot pot.

The china and place settings used during those meals held a special place in Tran’s heart, because she knew exactly how each piece had arrived at the table.

Tran helped her mother, who did not speak English, with the weekly grocery shopping at a Safeway about a mile from their home in Arlington. At the time, Safeway participated in the S&H Green Stamps program. The loyalty program rewarded shoppers with stamps based on how much money they spent in the store. Once shoppers collected a predetermined number of stamps, the stamps could be traded in for place settings or cookware.

“Every week, we would get a new piece,” Tran said. “In the end, we got big place settings. That was an important part of this whole table.”

Hao Tran’s spread is based on the foods she ate at holiday gatherings as a child. Her family emigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975.

Tran tells these stories while sitting at a long table inside her grocery store, Hao’s Grocery & Cafe. Dishes Tran ate at those family gatherings are on the table, including Granny’s Egg Rolls with nuoc cham dipping sauce, fried lemongrass chili quail, crab and white asparagus soup and a seafood hot pot with shrimp, crab and clams.

Pickled purple daikon, pomelo and green papaya salad and broiled shrimp that had been skewered and brushed with butter were also included in a spread that reflects Tran’s Vietnamese roots.

Tran emigrated at age 6 with her mother, father and siblings during the fall of Saigon in 1975. They brought very little with them but had seeds to grow food and gold to exchange for money, Tran said. Catholic Charities sponsored many immigrant families, including Tran’s, and helped relocate them throughout the United States.

“We were the first family to arrive, and they put my parents to work right away,” Tran said. “They put us in a little community. As more families came, we became close-knit. We’re trying to survive together.”

An open-air market in Grand Prairie provided essentials for living, including chickens that could be raised at home and used for food.

Her family raised chickens for about a year until someone mentioned that the nearby Safeway sold pre-cut chicken. A grocery store with items like meat, milk and eggs readily available was a new concept for Tran’s family.

“Going to the grocery store that day was like liberation,” Tran said. “It was like freedom for us. It seemed like the whole world opened up for us in a new way, in a good way.”

The happiness Tran felt that day left an impression and is part of what inspired her to open her own grocery store.

Hao’s Grocery carries basic items like milk and eggs in addition to ingredients needed to make traditional Asian foods like pad thai or spring rolls. A lounge area off to the side of the grocery store provides a space for dinners, parties and cooking classes.

The grocery store also has dumplings. Dumplings helped Tran get started as an entrepreneur.

In 2018, Tran started doing pop-up dumpling stands with a friend, and after doing “250-something pop-ups, we were tired.” A brick-and-mortar option emerged when Tran joined three other partners in opening The Table Market + Culinary Studio in September 2019.

Tran rebranded the space earlier this year after taking over the lease of The Table. She elected to stay on St. Louis Avenue when her partners opened a new concept in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square.

More changes are coming for Tran’s business, as she plans to open a second store on West Magnolia next year. Hao’s Cho Bep, which translates to “market to kitchen” according to Tran, will be a full grocery, wine shop and have a takeaway deli.

The new location will host the Local Cookery Club, a place for food enthusiasts, home cooks and chefs to collaborate, Tran said. Cooking classes will be offered at both locations.

“Classes are a way for me to teach people what I learned from my mother, my aunt and my grandmother,” Tran said. “It’s a lost art.”

Tran was exposed to different cuisines through her family as well. Her aunt had a French-Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal that was near Polish, Turkish and Italian restaurants. Tran and her cousin would venture through all those kitchens during her visits to Canada.

“I spent my summers there after my father passed away,” Tran said. “Boom, I was in love. I was in love with every kind of food.”

The love never faded, but the responsibilities of life made it difficult to spend as much time in the kitchen as Tran wanted. After her youngest daughter went off to college, Tran found more time to cook and learned from her aunt.

This fall, Tran started sharing the art of cooking with students at Trimble Tech High School. A once-dormant culinary program was revived, and Tran, who taught science for more than two decades, was selected for her “dream job” of teaching culinary and food science classes.

Between teaching and running the grocery store, Tran said, she works about 18 hours per day. On top of that, she coaches flag football and swimming.

Tran does set aside time to travel and experience other cultures and foods. During a trip to Mexico City a few years ago, she did a regional bike tour of taco restaurants. The mole sauce used on one of the tacos still sticks with her to this day.

“Holy cow! Mole salsa blows my mind away,” Tran said. “So good.”

Sometimes, Tran uncovers new goods to sell at the grocery store on these trips. One such item is Bachan’s — The Original Japanese Barbecue Sauce. Tran said that sauce is her top-selling condiment.

The story behind Bachan’s makes the product even more appealing to Tran.

Bachan’s founder, Justin Gill, based the sauce on a family recipe and named it in honor of his grandma. Bachan means “granny” in Japanese. Gill started the San Francisco-based business in 2013, went to market in 2019 and now offers five flavors.

“I want to support a product like this because it came with a story,” Tran said. “My egg rolls come with a story, because that’s how Grandma showed me. You can buy potato chips, lots of chips, but does that chip have a story?”

The crab and white asparagus soup from the spread Tran prepared has a story, too.

Tran’s mother worked as a house cleaner at a resort spa that counted celebrities of the day among its guests, Tran said. Through this job, Tran’s mother was exposed to new foods like pound cake and white asparagus. She added the white asparagus and crab, something Tran’s family already loved, to egg drop soup.

Over the years, traditional Western holiday foods like ham and turkey have been a part of Tran’s holiday table. These foods were added while Tran’s two daughters were growing up, but Tran made sure traditional Vietnamese dishes were always present.

Tran finds joy through cooking, which makes it easier to keep those dishes a part of any family gathering where everyone can bond over food.

“We break bread together, we break egg rolls,” she said. “Our way to impart our love to people is through food. It’s my love language.”