Tân Tân Café
STORY BY LOLA MILHOLLAND
PHOTOS BY KIMBERLY HASSELBRINK
Tân Tân Café & Delicatessen was built on the premise of making everything from scratch. Mai and Vinh Tran began the deli to sell their scratch-made Vietnamese-style prepared meats. “A remnant of the French influence in Vietnam are various types of ham,” explains their daughter, Lisa Tran. “We make thịt ngượi, which is like the marbled French jambon. We make our own pork liver pate and head cheese. And we make chả lụa, often called a pork meat roll.” Chả lụa is wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, emerging like a brick of bologna tinged slightly green and smelling of an herb garden. It was the star of the banh mi on their first miniature menu at what was otherwise a grocery store.
By popular demand, they slowly transformed Tân Tân into a full-fledged, bustling restaurant, now with two locations at distant points of the Portland star: Beaverton and Vancouver. The restaurants sit like veiled secrets, the words “Café & Deli” eclipsing the tiny red clover of their logo, the words “Tân Tân” so small, you practically have to know what it says to read it.
The Tran family has also made their own brightly spicy, layered chili paste — what they call Mom’s Hot Chili Sauce, made with hoisin sauce and coconut milk–based peanut sauce — since they opened Tân Tân in Beaverton in 1997. For the first time this year, their sauces are on Portland-area grocery shelves. “Our hoisin is complex — neither aggressively sweet nor aggressively salty,” says Lisa, succinctly describing not only the hoisin, but the guiding flavor at her family’s Vietnamese restaurants.
“We’ve had a lot of customers who ask to buy our mom’s hot chili sauce. People would buy 32-ounce soup containers or fill up mason jars, and it would be a big mess,” she laughs. The sauce is undeniably special. It layers the bracing heat of habaneros with spices that hint at sweetness, such as star anise and coriander and delicious notes of lemon grass. But the family had never seriously considered selling their products beyond the restaurant.
While taking a class at Portland Community College, she noticed a pamphlet for a course called “Getting Your Recipe to Market.” “The class was a crazy rollercoaster,” Lisa recalls. Week after week, she got help reformulating her recipes for large-scale production, developing a business plan, finding a partner to pack their sauces, learning about pricing and packaging, and even presenting to New Seasons buyers, who were so excited about the quality of the three sauces she narrowed in on — hoisin, mom’s hot chili, and peanut sauce — that they asked to have all three in every store.
While expanding the family business into this new realm, Lisa had twin babies. By all accounts, her life was a whirlwind of intensity. But for Lisa, bringing these sauces to market has been a grounding experience. “I’m so proud to have found myself in this amazing food community, where everyone is willing to go out on a limb,” she says. “I feel like all my life I’ve been trying to find my niche, trying to get into a professional career to make my parents happy. Now I’m working harder than ever, but I’m happier than ever.”
Tân Tân SPICY FRIED RICE
2 tablespoons sesame oil
8 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 link of Chinese sausage, sliced
4 ounces poached chicken, sliced
4 ounces sliced Charsiu pork (Chinese BBQ pork)
1/2 small onion, diced
1/2 cup carrots, diced and steamed
1/2 cup peas, steamed
4 cups cooked Jasmine rice
2 tablespoons Tân Tân Vietnamese Hoisin Sauce
1 teaspoon Tân Tân Mom’s Hot Chili Sauce 1 cup chopped scallions
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat large pan on medium high heat and add enough Sesame Oil to coat pan.
Crack in eggs and start to make a soft scramble.
Add shrimp, Chinese sausage, chicken and Charsiu pork and cook with eggs until shrimp is cooked well.
Add onions, carrots, peas and rice, stirring to combine.
Add Vietnamese Hoisin Sauce and Mom’s Hot Chili Sauce.
Stir well over high heat until sauces are evenly distributed.
Add scallions, soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste.
Add more Mom’s Hot Chili to get more saucy!
Lola Milholland is a noodle entrepreneur. Her company, Umi Organic, sells fresh organic ramen noodles in Portland area groceries.