The entrance to Hong Kong Market bustles with inflatable pink-and-red Chinese New Year decorations. Two small shops flank the glass entrance to the grocery store/mall/food court that anchors West Grand Prairie’s Asia Times Square shopping center, arresting the attention of the unprepared shopper. The sweet, rich aroma of a Cantonese bakery competes for olfactory attention with a Vietnamese snack bar boasting several mahogany-skinned ducks and whole roasted pigs arranged near the front window. Between these distractions, a small group of Pho lovers – among them keen home cooks, food bloggers, friends, and me – gathers for an instructional tour of the expansive space, tucking away spice packets just distributed by Hao Tran, our guide on this inaugural “Pho-natics Field Trip.”
Through Lost in the Sauce, a Facebook page linked with several other food-oriented groups, Tran organizes pop-up dining events, community dinners, and cooking classes. She has developed a strong reputation online for beautiful plating and photography, and she hosts instructional, intimate dinner parties a couple of weekends a month.
On that weekend afternoon at Hong Kong Market, Tran began to give us directions for the alchemy that will turn these anise-and-fennel-laden muslin bags into my home-cooking nemesis, pho. She guided us through the market, showed us exactly what to buy and in what quantities, and demystified a place (and dish) that, for many of us, is intimidating. With a teacher’s instinct for storytelling, Tran described the history of pho in Vietnam, the regional variations in both broth and meats, as well as her connection to that history through her family.
Tran grew up in the Vietnamese community in South Arlington near Sam Houston High School. As the daughter of immigrants, her early years were spent in her parents’ home kitchen, learning Southern Vietnamese cooking from her mother and the spicier, pork-heavy Western Hue-style from her father. An aunt in Montreal owned a French-Vietnamese restaurant, and Tran spent summers there developing a repertoire of classic and colonial dishes. It’s a chef’s resume, certainly, and a trajectory that could have easily carried Tran into professional kitchens. Instead, she studied chemistry and became a teacher, for many years reserving her cooking for her daughters and friends.
Our group followed Tran into the overflowing aisle of earthenware mortars, rice, and Japanese snacks that led to our first stop – the meat department. There, she pointed out sirloin, oxtail, shank, and tendon, describing for each the texture and flavor it provides. Students for the day, we trailed behind her as she described the best choice in noodles, where to find the beef bones, and which pre-packaged spices give the best flavor. Lunch at Pho Ngon, the cornerstone of the food court adjacent to the market, provided an excellent baseline for my broth-to-be, and I gathered supplies, buoyed by fresh confidence in my abilities. The following day, I started roasting onions and ginger early, following Tran’s instructions. Eight hours later, I sat down to a bowl that looked and smelled, well, perfect.
Over the years, Tran has collaborated with several high-profile local chefs, teaching classes with Victor Villareal (Savor Culinary Services) at Williams Sonoma, cooking with Hans Peter Muller (Swiss Pastry Shop) and Julia Dunaway (Chef Julia) at Foodie Philanthropy, a Fort Worth-based organization funding charity through dining, and making dinner for Kevin Martinez (Tokyo Café). Villareal said he considers Tran “just as good as some of the chefs around town.” Martinez is glad to welcome Tran to the pop-up dining scene, and he said that the chefs he has talked with appreciate her food.
“We love her,” he said. “What she’s doing is great for our community.”
While she would certainly have widespread support if she opened a restaurant, Tran told me she has no such plans. Instead, she wants to keep offering intimate classes and small dinner parties, collaborating with chefs she admires, learning and teaching along the way.
Seats at Tran’s events go fast. Two mid-March dinners featuring dumplings and sake sold out in minutes, and Tran has had to schedule two dates to meet demand for an upcoming dumpling-centric pop-up at The Collective Brewing Project in the South Main area.
My guest and I booked seats early for Tran’s recent collaboration with Dixya Bhattarai, a local chef who also offers classes and dinners through her page, Food, Pleasure & Health. On the patio at the former Bentley’s space on West Magnolia Avenue, three long tables, set with chargers and potted flowers, allowed guests to meet and get to know one another. The handwritten butcher’s paper menu promised three different curries: beef pho curry, paneer tikka masala, and chicken khaw suey. The trio arrived together, allowing us to compare between the versions of this dish but overwhelming my attention span somewhat. As courses, the delicate, herbal khaw suey, a green Nepalese coconut curry topped with fried shallots and toasted sesame oil, would not have had to struggle for my attention against the sweet, tomato-adorned hunks of homemade paneer and the two-bite, meltingly tender cubes of shank eddying within the soup. For dessert, kheer – a floral, pistachio-topped rice pudding – beautifully complemented fried banana in honey with black sesame.
An educator, Tran joins a growing number of cooks who are teaching Fort Worth that the best food in town may not be in its restaurants. Indeed, last week, sitting in front of my first successful bowl of pho, I was temporarily convinced that it was right there, at home.