Two Louisville restaurants have roots reaching back 9,000 miles, across multiple generations and cultures now just beginning to be explored.
Annie Tran grew up in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), watching her mother run her own restaurant; as an adult, she followed suit – albeit in an altogether different land. “I came here November 26, 1990,” Annie says, the date marking the demarcation line between “before” and “after.” “Before,” she says, “some friends came to my mom’s house and said, ‘Mom’s food is good, so why not open a restaurant?’” Annie watched closely and, with modifications and a geographic change, adapted that path as her own.
“I came to Louisville and went to ESL (English as a Second Language) school, and then after that I went to JCTCS (Jefferson Community & Technical College) to get my degree in business,” she says. “A lot of people said I couldn’t, but I did it.” Today, her eponymous restaurant, Annie’s Cafe, is a solid staple of the South End’s Southeast Asian culinary community.
Fifteen-year-old Lee Tran, too, dreamed of opening his own restaurant – but this was in Louisville, not Vietnam, and his biggest critic (and, ultimately, his biggest fan) was his mother: Annie. Now 21, Lee owns Banh Mi Hero on Bardstown Road in the Highlands. The Sullivan University student majored in marketing, but in his mind there was no question what he wanted. “I was 10, 11,” he recalls of his childhood at his mother’s restaurant. “Originally, she had me washing the cups and stuff, and then I started playing with her oven and wok and she started making me cook, and I thought, ‘I really like cooking.’ I liked to see how high I could turn up the fire without burning myself,” he laughs. “Maybe I still do.”
While his mother sticks with traditional sit-down fare such as pho (the celebrated Vietnamese noodle dish), cooking the broth for “at least” five hours, Lee goes a bit more for the street food angle. The “banh mi” of the restaurant’s name refers to a traditional Vietnamese sandwich with a heavy French influence. For the top-selling Saigon Hero, Lee starts with a baguette from Sullivan’s kitchen, then adds cilantro, cucumbers, homemade pate and Vietnamese pork sausage, garnishing it with onion, pickled carrots, daikon (radish) and special sauces. “That’s your most basic one,” Lee says. Diners who prefer to break away from the pack can sample a rice cup – a coffee mug-sized serving of rice topped with meat and vegetables – or a Vietnamese coconut soda, or something a little more familiar to North American eyes, if not taste buds, such as Lee’s banh mi po’ boy or taco shell versions of the sandwiches. “It’s Vietnamese fusion,” he says.
Even with two busy restaurants, the Trans remain close and see each other several times a week. Not that Lee always listens to his mother. “Of course I have pride in him,” Annie says. “But I wanted him to wait until he was 21.” (Lee opened Banh Mi Hero three months short of his 21st birthday; the space was available and, he says, “I felt like I was ready.”) “But he’s good enough to do it, so I said okay.” She also concedes that her son makes better banh mi than she does. “I’ve had my restaurant for 11 years, but I’m still learning. I try to cook better and better.” Sounds like she’ll have some healthy competition for the journey.
Annie’s Cafe is located at 308 W. Woodlawn Ave.; for information and hours, call (502) 363-4847 or visit www.anniecafe.com. Banh Mi Hero is located at 2245 Bardstown Road; for information and hours, call (502) 456-2022 or visit www.banhmihero.com.