A Major Obsession, A Minor Sensation


Vinh Loi Tofu in the LA TimesIn a dining area barely bigger than a lunch truck, Kevin Tran presides over the counter and dining room of Vinh Loi Tofu, a Vietnamese vegetarian café and tofu factory in Reseda. He banters on a first-name basis with regulars who trickle in all day: mothers with children picking up takeout, a burly guy whose black T-shirt sports the moniker “Harley House Calls,” a woman wearing a hijab who takes a few bottles of the factory’s freshly made soymilk from the large refrigerator case by the doorway.

If your timing is right, you might hear the low whir of a soybean-grinding machine emanating from the kitchen, which is also a compact atelier where Tran makes fresh tofu, soymilk and creamy tofu custard daily.

Like cookies just out of the oven, just-picked fruit or meat still sizzling from a grill, freshly made tofu is one of those foods whose flavor nuances are perfectly aligned for only a few hours; in this case, when the wobbly mass is just out of the kettle and still cooling. The slight sweetness and ethereal bean essence vanish as quickly as the aroma of fresh bread. But fresh tofu made on the premises is just one selling point here. The kitchen turns out about 20 tofu-based Vietnamese dishes that I’d be happy to drive across town to eat (though I’m not a vegetarian).

The utilitarian décor, basically shelves holding Asian vegetarian groceries, is clearly a nonissue at this quirky place, which has the feel of an insiders club. At the three closely packed tables, people seem to bond over sharing the details of their favorite tofu dishes, discussing the ingredients and gesturing to the wall displaying colored photos that illustrate them. And Vietnamese-born Tran is always ready to answer questions or to customize a dipping sauce for one of the various spring rolls.

Inspired by the many vegans and vegetarians they knew, Tran and his wife started the business about three years ago because they loved fresh tofu. “We were tired of driving to Little Saigon or San Gabriel to get it,” Tran said.

Their dream enterprise nearly vanished when the consultant they hired to teach them how to make tofu disappeared before completing their training. But with helpful advice from ingredient suppliers, Tran set out to perfect his tofu, often coming to work at 4 a.m. to experiment. Great tofu, it turns out, was only one result of his marathon kitchen sessions.

Stuck in the shop virtually day and night, he ate tofu, tofu and more tofu. He dreamed up interesting ways to prepare it and made up takeout portions of successful dishes to sell along with the tofu. It soon became clear that the prepared dishes were an excellent draw, so Tran continued to expand his repertoire, eventually adding a few tables to accommodate customers who came in at mealtime.

Tran’s first success, a vegetarian version of the classic central Vietnamese soup bun bo Hue, with its slightly chewy rice noodles and the bright sting of chile broth, is still one of his favorites. He became just as fanatical about refining it as he had been in learning to perfect his tofu, preparing, eating and evaluating it daily for several months before it was codified into a recipe.

He and his employees were just as rigorous in developing all of Vinh Loi’s menu items, which may be why, unlike foods at many small operations, the dishes here are nearly always consistent.

Take the curry. Its balance of heat, sweet, tart and mellow is unfailingly perfect. The kitchen turns out several regional noodle soups (but no pho). Tran doesn’t use just one master broth; each soup has its own flavor. The hu tieu, a south Vietnamese seafood specialty, does taste like seafood. And the deep meatiness of bun mang vit precisely mimics a duck broth. One of the most agreeable dishes, bun bi thit nuong, a cool refreshing salad-like assembly, gets substance and texture from compact tofu cubes and shredded gluten. The dressing, a shimmery clear coconut sauce, sparked with garlic and a smidgen of flaked chile, resembles traditional nuoc cham sauce. Normally I’d miss the requisite fish sauce in such a dressing but Tran’s amalgam is a marvel.

The same mixture seasons banh uot, a plate of fresh rice-noodle sheets that are slightly chewy, as sheer as organdy, and topped with vegetables and crispy soy “fish sticks.”

Available for purchase from the refrigerated case is one of Vinh Loi’s more unique creations — tofu embedded with bits of lemon grass and chile or with shiitake mushrooms blended in before it’s formed into blocks. The kitchen fries small triangles of this tofu, turning them into marshmallow-soft pillows that are great alone or with one of Tran’s dipping sauces.

For dessert: the Vietnamese comfort food dau hu duong, a silky warm custard of barely set soymilk drizzled with a zingy ginger syrup and optional swirls of sweetened coconut milk; it’s as hard to stop eating as an ice cream sundae. A mint-green colored version is delicately flavored with the tropical leaf pandan.

You may hit it lucky if Tran is in one of his experimental phases, obsessed with perfecting a new tofu item. But as it stands, sampling the 20-odd dishes he presently serves — not to mention the ultra-fresh main ingredient — takes you on a revealing journey into tofu’s seemingly infinite potential.

Source: Los Angeles Times


Kevin Tran, The Iron Monk

Kevin Tran Time TrialThe universal challenge of triathlon is balancing training with work and family commitments. Nobody knows that better than Kevin Tran, who has perfected the art of time management.

The 43-year-old, married, father of three works up to 90 hours, seven days a week as the owner and head chef of Vinh Loi Tofu, a Vietnamese vegan restaurant in Reseda, Calif. Yet he still find time to train and race, even competing in last year’s Ironman Arizona.

“People tell me they don’t have time to train,” Tran says. “Hey, I’m busy with work and family and kids and I find the time. I’m able to motivate a lot of people.”

Vinh Loi Tofu, though located in a modest strip shopping mall far from some of the more glitzy areas of Los Angeles, draws the occasional celend has become something of a destination for Southern California runners and triathletes. Tran hangs his race medals from the ceiling of the restaurant, giving it something of an endurance sports vibe.Kevin Tran Medals

Many customers aren’t vegan but come for Tran’s special soups and dishes that have earned rave reviews from The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine and other publications. Tran works the cash register and dining room, taking orders from the counter or, if it’s not too busy, sitting down at tables with customers.

“His personality is what makes the place unique besides the food,” says Michael Pack, a fellow triathlete and occasional training partner. “He loves for people to come in for the first time and not know what they want, and he’ll figure
it out for them.”

Tran grew up in Vietnam, where his father was a soldier who worked for the U.S. government. After the Vietnam War ended, his father was put in jail and the family was sent to live in the jungle, where they resided in a tiny home made of wood and clay, with coconut leaves for the roof.

“It was a horrible-looking place, but actually a good house for that area,” Tran says. “I’m proud to have grown up in it.”

Kevin Tran Old HomeAn uncle escaped to the United States in 1983 and three years later he was able to sponsor Tran, his parents, and his two siblings. Tran was 17 when he arrived in 1986, not knowing a word of English.

Before opening the restaurant in 2002, he worked up to three jobs, including owning a beauty supply wholesale business. He says he actually worked more back then and sold the business to spend more time with his wife and their growing family, which now includes daughters ages 13, 8, and 7. “What’s the purpose of working all the time if you can’t see your kids?” he says.

Every six months, Tran shuts down the restaurant for a week and takes the family on a vacation. His wife is a stay-at-home mom but fills in at the restaurant if he can’t get to work on time following a weekend race.

His training occurs during off hours, even by triathlete standards. He gets up at 4 a.m. and goes for a run before returning home to take the girls to school. By 9 o’clock, he’s at the restaurant, which opens at 10 from Monday through Saturday and 11 on Sunday, closing at 9 p.m.

Tran took up triathlon in 2011, inspired by some of his regular customers, and taught himself to swim watching YouTube videos. “I’m an Ironman who doesn’t know how to swim,” he jokes, adding that his 13-year-old, who also is a triathlete, has helped refine his stroke. He belongs to a health club with a pool that’s open until midnight and will squeeze in a swim after work before heading home. He’ll bike with a group in the morning in the hilly area around his neighborhood but swims and runs alone, generally getting by on four hours of sleep a night.

He’s often asked how he can thrive in such a hectic lifestyle, let alone in triathlon, by following a vegan diet. A late grandmother was a vegan for 54 years and Tran, who is 5-foot-8 and 156 pounds, has followed the diet for 11 years.

“People will say, ‘You have to eat meat to be strong,’” he says. “But I feel great all the time, have plenty of energy. I never worry about not getting enough protein. I own a protein factory.” Tran says he plans to do another Ironman event and will travel to Cabo San Lucas this summer to train. He’s inspired numerous customers and friends to take up the sport, including Pack, a fellow 43-year-old who quit smoking, got into shape, and now is aiming for Ironman Arizona in 2014. “Kevin is just so inspiring,” says Pack, who has been a vegan himself for two years.

Tran says his business and his training go hand in hand as he wants to educate people on the benefits of eating healthy and living an active lifestyle.

“I don’t have time for any of this, but I find a way to make it work,” he says. “Don’t tell me you don’t have time or you have to eat meat to be strong. You can make it work and achieve whatever you want in life. There are no excuses.”

Written by Pete Williams

Source: Summer USA Triathlon Magazine