Like so many rising young chefs these days, Chloe Tran’s professional cooking career started with a food truck.
It’s just that, for the 34-year-old behind two East Borough Fraîche Vietnamese restaurants in Southern California, her experience on four wheels took place when she was only 9. Her parents operated in San Jose, California, what were then often referred to as “roach coaches,” not the culinary vanguards tracked down on Twitter today.
Tran would come home after school and help prep the international smorgasbord that was the norm for these rolling eateries — hamburgers, burritos, chow mein — for tomorrow’s run. But her mother would still take the time to prepare a Vietnamese dinner for her five children. It was here where Tran gained the training to cook the dishes she would offer up at East Borough.
“I always had an idea, and a hope, of opening a restaurant serving Vietnamese food, which is what I grew up cooking with my mom,” says Tran.
She also had a tendency toward creativity. Tran studied interior design in college and was employed at a design firm for a few years in Southern California’s Orange County. But then the Great Recession struck in 2007. “When the crash happened, and I got laid off, that was my moment to decide whether or not I was going to go ahead and give this restaurant thing, this dream, a go,” she says.
So for the second time in her young life, Tran would choose to pursue a career her parents did not envision for their middle child.
The family moved from Vietnam when Tran was just 1, and as soon as they arrived in San Jose, Mom was working as a cook in restaurant kitchens and Dad as a server. Her parents tried opening up a pho restaurant in the coastal city of Monterey 70 miles south, far enough that they were away days at a time. That failed — Americans weren’t ready for pho then. Eventually the food truck came along, and her parents were more than familiar with the strain and stress required in food services.
“I think with Asian cultures, cooking is not looked up to; it’s just something you do to have a livelihood,” says Tran. “You never want your children to be doing what you were doing, especially if it’s hard.” And that was after her parents told her interior design should be “just a hobby.”
But Tran, with business partner John Cao, didn’t want to open just another Vietnamese restaurant. After all, Orange County is home to Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese enclave in the United States that extends into multiple cities, but mostly Westminster. And there is no shortage of places to eat there. “It’s not a location we ever thought would make us as successful as we wanted to be,” says Tran.
Instead, Tran’s vision was to help make Vietnamese cuisine mainstream and accessible, as popular as Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai food. “It should be the next big Asian cuisine because there are so many positives to it — it’s healthy, flavorful, and it’s exotic,” says Tran. So there was no point in preaching to the converted in Little Saigon. “We didn’t necessarily want Vietnamese people; we wanted everybody.”
The first East Borough opened in 2010 in a newfangled mall for the hipster set called The Camp, located in Costa Mesa, a mere five miles from Little Saigon. And they started small — think upscale food court stand, with a walk-up counter and several tables, and a menu focusing mostly on bánh mì sandwiches.
One of East Borough’s customers was Paul Hibler, a restaurateur who is responsible for the Pitfire Pizza chain. He was the potential partner Tran and Cao were looking for as they explored how to expand. And Hibler thought Tran’s food could appeal to a wider audience. “It was a more modern, healthier version [of Vietnamese cuisine],” says Hibler.
The partnership resulted in the second East Borough, some 40 miles to the north, in Culver City. And with this new restaurant, Tran got to apply her interior design skills to a much larger canvas — she describes the space as a “Palm Springs motel from the 1950s dropped into the middle of Vietnam” — along with table service, a full bar and all the trappings of a hip, new dining spot. “She has a great artistic aesthetic that she applies to everything,” says Hibler.
That includes the menu, where Tran has definitely veered from the traditional. With no formal chef training, Tran consulted with her mom when coming up with dishes, but it’s definitely not her mother’s pho. There’s no soupy broth for the diner to slurp up. Rather, the emphasis is on oxtail, which is braised with pho seasonings and charred in a wok, then combined with the usual rice noodles. But here the “pho” is sauced with a thick glaze — no soupspoon needed.
Traditionalists might gripe, and that includes some of her own aunts. But Tran is not fazed. “People forget that traditional is different from authentic,” she says. “You can make something very authentic, and it’s not a traditional approach. Our goal is to make authentic food and not necessarily be traditional.”
Her roasted trout with pineapple and anchovy vinaigrette is another deviation from the Vietnamese norm, literally from the inside out. Normally served as a whole trout, Tran has gone in and removed the skeleton and then reconstituted the dish to look like it’s the original fish, sparing Westside diners from picking the bones out of their teeth in the process.
Clearly, Tran is not trying to meet anyone’s expectations other than her own creative muse. And it’s winning over fans, including revered Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who praised the new Culver City restaurant, calling her pho baguette — a French dip-esque mash-up of bánh mì and pho — a contender for “dish of the year.” “It’s a reaffirmation that you’re doing something right,” says Tran, who called the review the restaurant’s biggest milestone so far.
But her biggest fans just may be her own parents, even though she’s tweaked her mother’s recipes. “She’s very honest,” says Tran of her mother. “If something’s not right, she will tell me. When she tastes the food, she tastes the flavors, and she gets it.”
And their concerns about their daughter opening a restaurant? “Now they’re bragging,” she says.
–STORY BY JIMMY LEE
Photos courtesy of Frank Lee
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here.