Diep Tran is the owner and executive chef of Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park. The former Blue Hen co-owner and chef comes from a family of cooks that also happens to own the Pho 79 chain of Vietnamese noodle shops. The Vietnamese-American comfort food served at the modern-day diner features house-made pop (made with citrus from the farmers market), pot pies, curry, pho and rolls.
Latest ingredient obsession? Red Boat fish sauce is my latest obsession. I tried it for the first time earlier this year. Red Boat is the only first-press fish sauce available in the states and for someone like me who came to the states when I was 6 years old, I had never tasted anything like it. I did grow up with my grandparents’ frequent lamenting about the lack of good fish sauce. They spent a lot of time shaking their heads before the rows of fish sauce brands at the Vietnamese markets. Impatient to finish the shopping, I'd invariably ask if it really mattered what brand of fish sauce we used. Then their faces would get that faraway look and they began to rhapsodize about how the waters around Phu Quoc were like no other, how the anchovies that swam there made for a fish sauce with exceptional depth and complexity and how you’d have to act quickly to buy your supply before it all sold out. Then they'd look at me with pity and resignation and say, "You wouldn't understand because you’ve never tasted it." First press fish sauce was something of a Holy Grail for me, something that supposedly existed but was out of my reach. So when I heard of Red Boat, I knew I had to try it. And can I say, it’s awesome! It makes everything taste better: stocks, stews, braises....
Favorite day off away from the kitchen? I took a trip to NYC this past summer and went to Momofuku Ma Peche, which is headed by executive chef Tien Ho. His boeuf sept facons is mind-blowing. In my opinion, Vietnamese seven courses of beef is like Thanksgiving –- people have very entrenched notions of what it should be and they don’t take kindly to anyone messing with tradition. A chef would have to be mighty inventive and gutsy to attempt a reimagining. Chef Ho totally succeeded in delivering seven-courses that surprised and delighted. The first course was a wagyu carpaccio seasoned with ginger and scallion that made me think of pho tai, but if I ever got a plate of raw beef that tasted that good, I wouldn’t be putting it into any broth. The salad was tendon dressed in plum vinaigrette, hot mint and peanuts. It had flavors that reminded me of tiet canh, a cold course usually made with duck blood. Then a meat pie came out. A tall, sturdy creation ... it was filled with tongue laced with la lot -– it was beef Wellington meets the beloved bo la lot. At some point, I didn’t know what dish was supposed to replace what course; my analytical brain surrendered and I just ate to delirium. It was fantastic.
What restaurant do you find yourself going to again and again? I can always go for Sushi Gen's uni platter.
The one piece of kitchen equipment you can’t live without, other than your knives? My iPhone. Vietnamese cuisine remains, for the most part, an oral tradition for me. I find myself calling up my aunts, my friends and my friends’ moms to ask them about a food memory. I don’t necessarily need a recipe, just the memory of flavors. I want to remember what herbs went alongside a dish, if it's a specialty of a particular region and if there's a season or occasion associated with it. The women I consult are passionate and opinionated about food, and I like being their student. It also keeps my Vietnamese from further deterioration. I also love my Vietnamese cookbooks. I probably, at one point, had every Vietnamese cookbook that's ever been printed in the U.S. I recently pared down my cookbook collection and let go of those I never consult. Favorites in my collection are Bach Ngo's "The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam" (1979), Nicole Routhier's "The Foods of Vietnam" (1989) and Andrea Nguyen's "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen" (2006).
What chef has most influenced you? My first and most significant culinary influence: my grandparents. My grandparents loved long and involved cooking projects. In the summers, when my siblings and I were out of school and could help with prepping and scullery, my grandparents would take out the banquet-size tabletops from the garage and plan their big dinners that took days to prepare. For my grandparents, hard work and pleasure were linked. I also loved the language they used when cooking. They didn’t cook candy to a hard-crack stage, they cooked it until the candy had the texture of a button. They didn’t brunoise shiitake mushrooms, they cut them into the size of pomegranate seeds. They measured twine for tying up roasts not by feet, but by how many lengths of chopsticks. So I like chefs whose cooking requires some time, lots of steps and multiday prep -- I’m in. And I like chefs who are attentive to language and whose writing evokes a world that I’d like to inhabit. So, naturally, I’m a fan of Judy Rodgers and her “Zuni Café Cookbook.” I love that her recipe for roasted chicken is pages long. I love that she has a section devoted to the practice of salting. Of course, I count myself among David Chang’s legions of fans. I love the oyster section in the Momofuku cookbook. It starts out as a section about choosing and shucking oysters but it’s really a parable about integrity in the kitchen.
110 North Ave. 56, L.A., (323) 257-8980, goodgirlfoods.com.
Paula Wolfert's method for roasting peppers
Test Kitchen tips: Defining "al dente"
Ben & Jerry's Schweddy Balls
-- Caitlin Keller
Photo: Diep Tran. Credit: Allison Achauer