Mid-preparation of Vietnamese Bánh Xèo — similar to a crepe or pastry, made of rice flour, turmeric, and coconut milk, then filled with beef and shrimp. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
A Tran family album preserves a 1975 clipping from The Delavan Enterprise (Wis.) newspaper announcing the arrival of Carina Tran’s family as sponsored Vietnamese refugees. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Chopped vegetables and herbs to fill Gỏi Cuốn — Vietnamese summer rolls of rice paper wrapping filled with veggies, sprouts, lean meat and shrimp. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Carina Tran opens a package of Vietnamese pancake flour mix for use in the preparation of Bánh Xèo. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
A portrait of Carina Tran in her kitchen in Elm Grove, Wis. Raised in Delavan, Wis., Carina is the Executive Chef and co-managing partner of Huế Restaurants in the Greater Milwaukee Area. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
A photograph of Carina Tran as a baby being held by her mother Tran Tung Thi. Her mother was pregnant with Carina while emigrating from Vietnam days before the fall of the South Vietnamese government on April 30, 1975. Carina was born on June 14. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Sauteed mushrooms and onions to be used for adding to and filling Bánh Xèo. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
A package of rice paper wrappers for making Vietnamese Gỏi Cuốn. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Carina Tran sautees over a hot, busy stove in her kitchen in Elm Grove, Wis. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Carina’s 3-year old son, Axel Nielsen, acting silly for the camera while being fed by his father, Carina’s husband Mark Nielsen. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
A tray of Vietnamese Bánh Xèo — similar to a crepe or pastry, made of rice flour, turmeric, and coconut milk, then filled with beef and shrimp. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Lean beef and vegetables sauteeing on a skillet laid out on Carina Tran’s table for filling Vietnamese rice paper wrapped summer rolls called Gỏi Cuốn. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
A 1975 photograph of Carina Tran’s grandmother, Nguyen Thi Le, sitting next to her grandaughter, Carina’s older sister Tran Thi Saly. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
A 1970s family snapshot of Carina Tran’s two older sisters Tran Thi Saly Tran Thi Xuan Thy. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Carina Tran’s son, 3-year old Axel Nielsen enjoys a bowl of rice noodles. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Fully prepared Gỏi Cuốn — Vietnamese summer rolls of rice paper wrapping filled with veggies, sprouts, lean meat and shrimp. (Sigrid Peterson/PBS Wisconsin)
Gỏi Cuốn – Summer Rolls
- 1 pack Rice Paper (we like Bamboo Tree brand)
- Prepared Dipping Sauce: Peanut Sauce, Hoisin or Traditional NuocCham
- Thin Sliced Sirloin
- Shrimp – Peeled/Deveined
- Onion – Thinly sliced
- Vermicelli Noodles – cooked
- Green Leaf Lettuce
- Red Pepper slices
- Saute beef, shrimp, onion in butter until cooked.
- Dip rice paper into warm water and lay flat on the plate.
- Layer beef, shrimp and desired fillings into wrapper and roll tightly . The rice paper will be very sticky so best to roll one at a time.
Bánh Xèo – Vietnamese Crepe
- 1- pack Bot Banh Xeo Mix
- 1-14 oz can Coconut Milk
- 2.5- cans water
- 2- tablespoon Vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup sliced Scallion
- 1 dozen shrimp peeled, deveined
- ½ lb thin sliced sirloin
- Sliced Mushrooms
- Sliced Onion
- Bean Sprouts
- Mix: 1-pack of Bot Banh Xeo with 1-can coconut milk and 2.5 cans of cold water. Whisk until well mixed. Add 2 Tbsp. Vegetable Oil and ½ cup sliced scallion. Let stand 30 minutes.
- Heat non-stick pan until very hot. Add 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add slices of shrimp and 4-5 slices of sirloin to pan. Cook ½ way, then carefully pour 1-6oz ladle of batter to pan. When batter appears dry at surface, turn heat to medium/low and add slices of mushroom, onion and small handful of bean sprouts to ½ of pan (similar to an omelet). Continue to cook until mushrooms and onions are translucent. Fold half over when crepe is crispy. Serve with Fresh lettuce, mint, and peanut dipping sauce.
Carina Tran’s relationship to Vietnamese cuisine is one of homecoming.
“I returned to it, I moved back toward it,” she shared. “The typical path is you pull away, you go to college, you get a corporate job. I did all of that but later I chose to come back to it and I think that’s part of the challenge — it forces me to work through my childhood and to come full circle with my culture and background.”
Tran is Executive Chef and co-managing partner, along with her husband Mark Nielsen, of Huế Restaurant in the Greater Milwaukee area. The pair manage two locations — in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood and the neighboring western suburb of Wauwatosa.
“We generally describe Huế as ‘modern Vietnamese,’ and we frame the food as ‘approachable’ for customers who might feel timid about trying an unfamiliar Asian cuisine,” she said.
The photographs in this story follow Tran in her home in Elm Grove preparing Bánh Xèo — similar to a crepe or pastry — made of rice flour, turmeric, and coconut milk, then filled with beef and shrimp.
“The ‘Xèo,’ in ‘Bánh Xèo’ relates to the sizzle,” she shared.
She also makes Gỏi Cuốn, a Vietnamese summer roll of rice paper wrapping filled with veggies, fresh herbs, lean meat and shrimp.
“The rolls are really interactive and communal,” she described. “You cook and layout the components on the table and then you’re able to talk and socialize and be with your loved ones.”
For Tran, opening Huế ten years ago sustained a multigenerational legacy of food entrepreneurship and industry. This food, along with experience in the food business, emigrated with her family from central Vietnam to the southeastern corridor of Wisconsin. The restaurant is named after the Thừa Thiên-Huế Province where her parents were raised.
“Everything fell on April 30, 1975. Dad and mom, my grandmother, my sisters Xuan Thy and Saly — who were 3 and 1 at the time — left just days earlier,” she shared. “I can’t technically say I am a refugee because I was born on June 15, on this ground.”
The ground she refers to is Fort Chaffee located in the northwest corner of Arkansas, one of four domestic military bases to take in political refugees from the Vietnam War under the Indochina Migration and Assistance Act of 1975.
Tran’s family was among approximately 100,000 Vietnamese who departed with the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. They awaited sponsorship and resettlement at Fort Chaffee along with many former members of the South Vietnamese military — Tran’s father, Chau, was an officer and ship navigator in the Vietnamese Navy.
On August 5, 1975, the Tran family arrived in Delavan, Wisconsin in Walworth County, welcomed by a family participating in a refugee sponsorship program. Chau and his wife Tung remained in Delavan to raise their three daughters with the help of Tran’s grandmother.
“My parents’ desire to have the ‘American Dream’ was strong. They really strived for that and pushed us hard to achieve it,” Tran said of her upbringing in Delavan. “But on the flip side there was a lot of hardship — a lot of dealing with cultural differences: the stigma of being from Vietnam during the war, the harsh and unfamiliar climate of the Midwest where there weren’t a lot of other Vietnamese. We were one of only two Vietnamese families in Delavan.”
Tran negotiates the complexities of her Vietnamese American identity while carrying forth a history of food entrepreneurship that began with her paternal grandfather in Vietnam.
“My grandfather owned a successful pig roasting business,” she recounted. “He processed and distributed pork to many of the markets in Đà Nẵng. My mom actually had a stall in one of them and she bought from him. That’s how she ultimately met my dad.”
In the 1990s, while still residing in Delavan, her father, Chau — now deceased — opened TungChau Oriental Market, a specialty Asian grocery store in Milwaukee. Tran uses what she learned from her father about sourcing Asian food products in her business. She speaks to her father’s foresight anticipating interest in Pan-Asian cooking and cuisine.
“His grocery store was one of the first in Milwaukee to sell foods from a variety of Asian countries,” she shared. “Where most other stores focused on one specific country, it was not uncommon to see a diverse crowd of customers in my father’s store purchasing favorite foods from their homeland. He would often source hard to find items for customers and help Americans navigate through the unknowns of Oriental foods.”
Tran describes contending with scrutiny of her “authenticity” common to children of immigrants in America who straddle multiple ethnic identities.
“It’s tricky because some potential customers see us as ‘too Vietnamese’ and others ‘not Vietnamese enough,’” she shared.
She speculates that those who find the restaurant “too Vietnamese” feel so because the cuisine and Vietnam are very unfamiliar. And those who claim Huế is not “Vietnamese enough” carry strong opinions about how a Vietnamese menu and restaurant ambiance should look, sound and feel.
“I hope both audiences know they are welcome,” she said. “I hope they can see that my ‘authenticity’ is as complex as theirs — a combination of a love of my family’s and Vietnam’s food traditions, my creativity as a chef and designer, my care for my staff’s job quality, my business understanding of our market, and my desire to share, connect, and educate through food.”