Vietnamese refugee now calls Jewish deli her home
by Deborah Silverthorn
Dallas Jewish Week
April 26, 2001
In this week when area Jews recall the times of the Holocaust and refugees who fled their homes to stay alive and the millions who didn’t make it – as well as the 53rd birthday of State of Israel – Hong and Ahn Tran of Dallas are recalling the end of the Vietnam War.
They mark April 30, 1975 as their own sort of Independence Day, and they celebrate it in freedom as eatery entrepreneurs who serve a predominantly Jewish clientele.
Married at 19, the Trans honeymooned for a very short time in their native Vietnam. Six months into their marriage, Hong was captured as an army officer and imprisoned by the Viet Cong for three years.
Over and over, their home was broken into and they were ultimately robbed of almost everything they had. Anh had hidden a few diamonds and some gold that were wedding gifts to her from her mother.
During the time that Hong was held captive, Anh hid in bushes and braved the elements to try to reach her husband. After numerous bribes and much heartache, her husband was returned to her.
Knowing that they had to leave to make a better life for the family they hoped for, Hong and Anh planned to leave. They joined the many who fought so hard to leave their country but who did so because they simply wanted the freedom to discuss and criticize, to worship as they please, to earn a decent living and to live under a just and fair government.
For Hong and Ahn Tran, in 1979 their journey away from their homeland brought them to Dallas. With their 19-day-old daughter, Minh Hai, wrapped in blankets, they left behind family, friends and the only life, language and home they knew.
After landing in Texas, Hong and Ahn took jobs to feed their small family as they had come to this country almost penniless. Hong began working for an electronics company at base wages and then worked his way up as a technician for the Xerox Corporation. Ahn worked endless hours sewing in her home, always remembering the lessons of her mother who taught her to persevere no matter what. After saving some money, the Trans purchased a small grocery store-deli in the Lake June area of Dallas.
As Ahn had never really learned to cook in Vietnam, her first lessons in the kitchen came from the cook who worked for her. Chicken-fried steak and other Southern cooked specialties were the beginnings of her culinary career.
After selling the grocery store to purchase a small convenience store in the mid-1980’s, the Trans sold that business to finance a restaurant, B.J.’s on Harry Hines. After a number of years of learning the restaurant business, Ahn heard that the very popular and successful deli, “Cindy’s” on Central Expressway, was for sale.
Together, she and Hong decided that owning the frontage-road deli would be their next step and they have been there now for 12 years. Fortunately, most of the employees were still available for hire and that made the transition much easier. For the Trans, this was a new form of traveling in “uncharted waters.”
A few years later, Ahn also purchased the “Bagel Emporium” deli in Richardson at the intersection of Coit and Campbell. That deli had been providing Cindi’s (the Trans changed the spelling to keep the recognition but give it a new spark) with their bagels and some of the other baked goods.
When Ahn first purchased the restaurant, she laughs now, she had never seen or heard of a bagel. As a matter of fact, there is almost nothing on the menu that resembles any of the foods she and her family were accustomed to eating in Vietnam.
While Ahn has had requests to either have the current “Cindi’s” include kosher items or open a kosher deli, there are many restrictions to that. While she does respect the culture and its laws, it is more than she is able to take on at least at this point.
On the menu however, is a world full of Jewish/New York style items. Chicken soup and matzah balls, latkes, every classic deli combo one could hope for, as well as salads galore. Challahs and a huge array of cakes and Danish are baked fresh daily and available at both locations as well as bagels in more than a baker’s dozen of flavors.
While the staff is terrific, there have been a few times through the years when customers didn’t think the chopped liver or perhaps the soup tasted enough like “Bubbe’s.” They have many times shared their own recipes or those passed on through the family tree with Ahn and today they remain part of the kitchen’s secret arsenal.
The loyalty to the restaurant is understood as the employees and the ambiance of both locations is bright, cheerful and friendly. Wall-to-wall paintings featuring seascapes and floral patterns in the brightest of colors make it easy to relax at one of the many booths or tabletops.
As the delis have grown and been renovated, so has the Tran family. Ahn stands behind the counters at one or the other of the locations throughout the week and her husband keeps the business end in control. Their family now includes four children. Ming Hai (who traveled to the U.S. with her parents as an infant) is now 21 and will be graduating from Texas Christian University this spring.
Looking for a career as a dietitian, Ming has made many suggestions for her parents in the preparation of the meals at the restaurants. Deli and Southern-style foods, not long known for high health quotients, are getting some makeovers. Much of the frying in the kitchens is now done using canola oil instead of vegetable oils – probably not a reason to order two or three times as much, but at least your consciences can relax a little.
Second daughter Yen is 20 and studying at Tulane University. The Tran sons – Man, 18 and studying at UT Dallas and youngest son Michael, 12 – both continue to help out by hosting at the delis.
“Teaching my children the importance of working hard and not giving up is the greatest lesson I will ever give them,” says Ahn. Since they were very young, all of the family has worked together to make a success of their lives.
“Our family is very much like the Jewish customers who come in to eat. The families are close, care about each other, and the parents want to teach them manners, kindness and respect for their families. We aren’t so different in many ways.”
In 1999, Ahn made her first trip back to Vietnam in 20 years. Her mother had since died, but she was able to find her father and attempt to catch up for the lost years. Ahn returned last summer with her sons and hopes to do so again this year to introduce her daughters to their grandfather, who is now 74.
Keeping her prices reasonable has been difficult at times but they do remain so. “We have regular customers who come in here, some a couple times a week, some every single day. I can’t price myself out of their range. We’d certainly rather see people every day and offer quality food at fair prices. That keeps ‘my family’ coming in over and over.”