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VOL. 125 | NO. 163 | Monday, August 23, 2010

Youth, Enthusiasm Drive Vietnamese Bistro Owners

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Tommy Bui and Annie Tran opened Vietnamese Bistro at 153 N. Cleveland St. in the city's densest area of Asian eateries.

Photo: Bob Bayne

Tommy Bui and Annie Tran grew up in towns only half an hour away from each other in Vietnam, two hours south of Saigon, but they didn’t meet until they were in high school in Memphis. And even then they attended different schools, Overton for Annie and Kingsbury for Tommy. Their families came to Memphis in 1995.

Bui, 25, and Tran, 27, have been together for 10 years, they have a 6-year-old son and on May 1 they opened their first restaurant, Vietnamese Bistro. The location would make adventurers less stalwart tremble: a long-empty, free-standing building at 153 N. Cleveland St. where – test your memories – first Golden Dragon and then Royal Dragon came and went, now smack in the middle of the city’s densest accumulation of Southeast Asian restaurants, including the venerable Vietnamese establishment, Saigon Le, just down the street.

Tran, whose command of English and outgoing personality make her a natural subject for an interview, if not a host of her own television cooking show or a judge on “American Idol,” acted as spokesperson for the couple.

About the perils of opening a restaurant, especially when Bui and Tran have “no experience either owning or working in a restaurant,” Tran said, “Cooking, if you have the passion for it, you learn. And we are young and enthusiastic.”

Tran may never have worked in a restaurant before, but she has some business acumen developed from working at Miss Muff’n Bakery in Germantown, owned by her mother, Lieu Nguyen. A specialty bakeshop that turns out as many as eight wedding cakes each week, Miss Muff’n was recently named one of 10 “Bodacious Bakeries” in the country by the TLC television program “Best Food Ever.”

“We are an ambitious family,” said Tran. “Ambition is in our blood.”

She called her mother “a pioneer. I learn from her all the time. In a way, I’m not creative, but I can make things happen.”

Bui, who learned to cook from his mother, is the owner of Vietnamese Bistro and the chef for the restaurant’s Vietnamese cuisine. Tran works at the restaurant in the afternoons and nights and on Saturdays; in the morning, she’s at the bakery. Another chef turns out the Chinese selections, though most of the fare reflects the couple’s roots in the southern part of Vietnam, where, Tran said, “the food has more of a home-cooked feeling. Our food reflects our geography. It’s not as fancy as the food in the north.”

Diners who have eaten in the neighborhood’s Southeast Asian restaurants will recognize many of the ingredients and dishes: the spring rolls and pancakes, the green papaya salad, the large steaming bowls of pho filled with noodles, brisket and tripe, the broken rice dishes with grilled pork chops. The menu includes exotic notes too: a salad of rare beef marinated in lime sauce, a “sour salad” with chicken feet, beef wrapped in betel leaf, a “pork innards rice porridge.”

“We take no short-cuts,” Tran said, “and we use no MSG.”

The fact that Vietnamese Bistro is surrounded by more established restaurants gave the couple moments of doubt.

“Tommy had a partner at first,” said Tran, “and he thought this was a good location. If I had to pick a location again, I might think between Midtown and East Memphis would be better. But it will be OK. I would say that the attitude we all share here in the neighborhood is – mutual respect. The Vietnamese community in Memphis is so small that everybody knows everybody else. We don’t want to step on anybody’s foot.” (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Vietnamese population of Memphis is 3,072.)

The major issue, as for anyone starting a business at this time in America, was the question of the lagging economy and its refusal to offer encouraging indicators in the areas of housing, the stock market and jobs.

“Opening a restaurant was Tommy’s idea,” Tran said. “Obviously, this is not the best time to start a business, but Tommy strives to be a better person and to learn. Instead of sitting around saying ‘Oh no, it’s not a good economy,’ he just said, ‘Let’s try it.’ You can’t be too late or too soon. I guess you could say that we’re not afraid. We had a few more people coming in when we opened, but we scaled down and now I work here every day instead of twice a week. My mom says that every business has ups and downs, and whatever happens you have to hang in there and work it out. And you always have to budget yourself so you can prepare for emergencies.”

Budgeting also applies to the menu.

“We sat down together and went through the menu to see what was best to keep or not. The menu is now in its second revision, because we have to be aware of the availability of the market and the pricing that we can put on the dishes. We have to do what’s good for the budget.”

Tran returns to Vietnam every five years.

“I know that I have been in Memphis for more than half my life,” she said, “but if someone asks me where my home is, I still say Vietnam.”

PROPERTY SALES 49 123 2,388
MORTGAGES 77 171 2,778
BUILDING PERMITS 174 284 6,352
BANKRUPTCIES 32 72 1,859