Stop Four: The Restaurants of Bardstown Road

Our next stop on our Journey Through the Bluegrass is none other than the eclectic and energetic Bardstown Road of Louisville, KY. What is so special about this area, you ask? Aside from the mass quantities of coffee shops and men sporting extravagant beards and corduroy, this is actually a great part of town to find some delicious grub. But not just any grub. We’ve recently been acquainted with the story of Huang “CoCo” Tran, the owner of a series of restaurants on Bardstown Road. Here is an excerpt from UPK author Aimee Zaring’s Flavors from Home that gives insight to the inspirational and captivating story of this Vietnam immigrant turned restaurant owner and guru:

“CoCo’s childhood was relatively normal and happy in Vietnam’s southcentral coast province of Quang Ngai—a well-known Vietcong stronghold during the Vietnam War and the setting of Tim O’Brien’s classic short story “The Things They Carried.” Her father was a businessman and a prominent supporter of democracy. When the political climate changed, creating instability in her hometown, she moved to the family’s city home in Saigon, where she lived from 1965 to 1975.

During this period, her mother died in a plane crash. CoCo, only eighteen at the time, helped her older sister raise their younger brothers and sisters. CoCo also assisted in her sister’s restaurant, Cafe Mimosa (the same name she later gave to her own restaurant in Louisville). However, CoCo wasn’t allowed to cook at the restaurant, and her sister used to shoo her out of the kitchen. CoCo admits that cooking wasn’t her forte. Everything she knew about cooking she had learned by watching her mother and sister and the servants in her parents’ household. What happened when she did cook? “I burned the rice. I cook terrible,” she says.

CoCo Tran in her Roots/Heart & Soy kitchen

CoCo made up for her lack of cooking skills with her keen senses. “I taste. I smell. I look. That’s the way I cook. That’s the way I learned.” She sampled dishes at other restaurants and reported back to her sister. “I know what’s goodand what’s not.”

When she wasn’t helping at the restaurant, CoCo worked as a pharmaceutical representative, a job that required travel. She was visiting her childhood home in Quang Ngai when her life—and the lives of her countrymen—took a drastic turn. On April 30, 1975, Communist troops from North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of

South Vietnam invaded and overtook Saigon, ending the war and a century of Western influence. CoCo found herself in the midst of a mob scene as she tried to make her way to a ferry and return to Saigon. Her older sister, who was unable to leave at the time, asked CoCo to escort her adopted eleven-year-old daughter to freedom and safety. CoCo still recalls, even thirty-odd years later, the horrific accident that occurred just hours after the child was entrusted to her care. With thousands of people fighting their way onto the ferry, CoCo and the young girl were pushed into the water as they boarded. CoCo surfaced. The child never did. CoCo spent the rest of the day and night frantically searching for the little girl. Eventually she had to return to Saigon—alone and defeated. (She never forgot the child and spent the next three decades trying to locate her. Finally, in 2008, she found her niece alive and well in Vietnam with two children of her own.)

Because of CoCo’s father’s politics, the family knew they were no longer safe in Vietnam. On May 2 CoCo and members of her extended family—twelve adults and six children—left Saigon with only some cash and some gold and an extra change of clothing. The only thing they knew for sure was that they would pay any price for freedom.

The family members staggered their individual departures to avoid arousing suspicion and reconnected near Long Hai beach, where American ships were supposed to be waiting to pick up refugees. No ships were in sight. The family negotiated with a fisherman, paying him to transport them on his small, poorly supplied fishing boat toward international waters. CoCo remembers how dark it was that first night at sea and how terrified she was, not knowing where they would end up or whether they would even survive another day. Finally, in the distance, they spotted a merchant ship. Just when they thought their luck had turned, the captain of the Taiwanese merchant ship demanded the exorbitant sum of $9,000 for food and transportation. They gave him everything they had and traveled from port to port, alongside cows and buffalo. They stopped at Thailand, Hong Kong, and Okinawa, but each port refused them entry. At the time, no official refugee program existed to support the people who were fleeing Vietnam. Without relatives or sponsors at these port cities, no country was willing to take in CoCo’s family.

Meanwhile, CoCo’s younger brother, Tran Thien Tran, was in America working tirelessly to find a way to help his stranded kin out on the open seas. He was living in Kentucky, attending the University of Louisville’s J. B. Speed School of Engineering. The family’s hope was that

Tran could find them local sponsors so they could join him in the States. After thirty-six days at sea, the Trans finally got word that Taiwan would admit them, on the condition that they not stay on the island for an extended period. Back in the States, sponsoring groups from local churches and the University of Louisville, along with a few individual households, rallied to assist the Tran family.

A grainy photo from the Louisville Times shows a tearful CoCo giving her brother a long-awaited hug at Standiford Field airport. It is hard to reconcile this woman with the confident, relaxed, successful restaurateur sitting across from me now and smiling broadly, brown eyes shining behind maroon-rimmed glasses—the American Dream personified.”

CoCo's Spring Rolls

CoCo’s Spring Rolls

Since coming to Kentucky, Coco has opened five establishments, all of which can be found in the eastern Louisville area:

The Egg Roll Machine (1981) — the first Chinese fast-food restaurant in Louisville
     1543 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40205
Cafe Mimosa (1984) — Louisville’s first modern Vietnamese and French cuisine restaurant
     1543 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40205
Zen Garden (2000) — the first Asian vegetarian restaurant in Louisville
     2240 Frankford Road, Louisville, KY 40206
Zen Tea House (2008) — an add-on to Zen Garden focusing on tea
     Closed
Heart and Soy/Roots — CoCo’s latest project, two conjoining “sister” restaurants
     1216 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40205

If you feel touched by CoCo’s amazing tale, you will definitely want to check out the rest of Zaring’s Flavors from Home which shares fascinating and moving stories of courage, perseverance, and self-reinvention from Kentucky’s resettled refugees. Each chapter features a different person or family and includes carefully selected recipes.

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