By Mary Lynch
From 2009 to 2018, when chef Diep Tran owned the award-winning Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park, she and her restaurant were an anchor and a sensation in the changing neighborhood. The menu was strikingly creative; the meals were “astonishingly good,” “wonderful” and “perfect,” according to a review in 2009 by the late, great restaurant critic Jonathan Gold; the vibe was welcoming and bustling — and all this before most of the bars, cafes and clubs now common on that stretch of Fig even existed.
Tran is the news again: In a lively interview this weekend with the Los Angeles Times food critic Bill Addison, Tran and her partner, Tien Nguyen talk about “The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook,” which they co-wrote with Cuong Pham, the founder of the Red Boat Fish Sauce company.
Superior-quality fish sauce is a cornerstone seasoning in Vietnamese cooking, said Addison, and Red Boat Fish sauce, a fermented, barrel-aged infusion of black anchovies and salt has “status as a cult product that helped change the way Americans understood and used the ingredient.”
Tran, who is now the recipe and development chef at Red Boat understood the sauce’s culinary power early on: “Red Boat bacon and eggs” was a signature dish at Good Girl Dinette, where the sauce was also sold in the restaurant’s merchandise section. “I felt like Red Boat’s entry into the market would inspire a generation of Vietnamese Americans — and Asian Americans — to think about the culinary legacies that they have,” Tran told Addison.
“The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook” has 100 recipes, from Vietnamese classics like Bún Chà and Sugarcane Shrimp to family and personal favorites like Chicken Wings and Pork Roast.
“We didn’t want to trap Vietnamese food into “essentials,” which is a word I kind of hate,” Tran told Addison. “Like, here’s a glimpse into a cuisine — which is what we wanted to achieve — rather than caging the cuisine in a terrarium where it doesn’t go anywhere. And we wanted to present the ingredient on its own terms. We don’t have a chapter about fish sauce called “Sorry It’s Stinky.”
Authenticity is a Tran trademark. She is a founder of the Banh Chung Collective, a nationwide group of friends, family and partners — including Proof Bakery in Atwater Village — who come together to strengthen community bonds between women, LGBTQIA and people of color, celebrate Lunar New Year and make banh chung, a banana leaf-wrapped dumpling of sticky rice, shallots, mung beans and pork (or adzuki beans for vegetarians).
Tran is also an advocate for worker rights in the restaurant industry and a speaker on the issue of race and labor.
Her beliefs about food, food workers and community are reflected in Red Boat Fish Sauce because the sauce, in addition to being delicious, is produced in a humane, transparent way. “International fisheries are notoriously rife with labor violations and human rights violations,” she told Addison. “It was great to know about a product that didn’t perpetuate that chain of behavior.”
It’s also great to know that the product now has its own cookbook that is, in its way, as satisfying as the sauce itself.