‘I Don’t Cook; Let That Be Known’
The pork belly and beef brisket pho at Simply Banh Mi are served with a side of refreshing perspective, courtesy of owner John Tran.
On the Vietnamese restaurant’s homepage, in free verse:
Our food game is tight.
our webpage sucks, but
no one eats internet cause
it’s full of worms and viruses.
EAT BANH MI.
‘We have a pretty objectively bad website. If I paid someone to make that, I’d be pretty irritated. But I try to be real. I’m not going to pay someone to do this, and I think our food is good, so there you have it. You could have the best website, but who’s going to do that? Getting to the bottom’s real easy, so I went with that.’
But it’s that sense of humor—paired with a strong work ethic and time-tested recipes—that may get John to the top.
His mother—affectionately known as Mama Tran—immigrated from Vietnam, a ‘Renaissance woman’ who could sew, cook, and play music. After a few years in Pennsylvania, she moved her two children to Virginia and opened a wedding dress business in Georgetown. On the side, Mama Tran sold ornate cakes and performed to traditional Vietnamese music at the Smithsonian.
As the wedding business thrived, she decided to open a deli on the first floor of the Wisconsin Avenue building—affectionately named TJ’s, after John.
‘My mom named her wedding business after my sister and that flourished, but the place named after me did terribly,’ John muses. ‘Everyone loved the food, but she tried to juggle too much.’
The deli eventually closed, but along the way, Mama Tran befriended someone with publishing connections. Through his network and encouragement, she published two cookbooks.
‘She was doing all of these book signings, and I could see we had the basis of a restaurant right in those cookbooks, if we ever wanted it.’
John had no experience in the restaurant business, happily working for a small company in Arlington that developed high school curriculum. But when the company was suddenly bought out, John was given the option of relocating to Minneapolis, or accepting a severance package.
‘My wife was very sick at the time, and I’d been working from home three days a week at this job. I had my one-year-old, a two-and-a-half-year-old, and my wife was going through chemo and radiation, and couldn’t walk. I thought, ‘If I get a 9-to-5, what are we going to do?’’
Instead, he talked himself into opening a sandwich shop. The basement of his building was available, and so was his mother.
‘I thought if I can have the right support, the grind will be there, but I’ll have more flexibility.
And I can also see the potential for this to be long-lasting and support the family.’
John partnered with his sister and opened Simply Banh Mi in 2013. With Mama Tran overseeing the cooking, the siblings handled the rest. It was all trial and error, menu included.
‘We started out with just sandwiches, but quickly realized those proteins are great over rice, noodles and salads, so we immediately added those. Then we thought, ‘Wait a minute, Mom’s pho is super good. So boom, that’s another. The trick has been adding things that aren’t going to destroy our inventory and management of cooking times.’
Five years into the business, John still hasn’t learned how to cook, but his sense of humor remains fully intact.
‘I microwave really well. I make a wicked hot pocket. I don’t cook, let that be known. Any good food here is due to my mother’s influence and presence. My mom is the skill, and everyone else are the hands. I’m just the guy who cleans tables, and brings out food.’
It’s the neighborhood regulars who keep Simply Banh Mi afloat, where John is now single-handedly running operations. His sister has stepped away from the business to spend more time with her family—something he longs to do one day soon.
‘My daughter and son are nine and seven. It’s a really fun time to be with them, so a hard time to be away. I’m hoping the investment of time now will lead to time later when I get to go to their recitals and baseball practices.’
Until then, John has his head down. He says opening his own business is as hard as he imagined, but he’s still excited to come to work every day, and is buoyed by a patient and encouraging family, and positive customer feedback.
His wife’s feedback—not so much.
‘Here’s the real irony. My wife doesn’t like Vietnamese food. What a kicker! She’s slowly coming around, but she’s a Midwestern girl. White food, as she calls it. Potatoes, bread, pasta, cream, Jello salad. Did you know Jello salad is an entrée?’
Food game not so tight.