With a vibrant design, smart graphics and an inventive menu almost entirely under $10, the Vietnamese sandwich eatery Bun Mee is ready for its grand opening today at 2015 Fillmore Street. The former ice cream shop has been transformed into a petite restaurant that promises a modern take on Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches — daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. either for take-out or dining in the cozy 16-seat space.
“Banh mi is basically street food in Vietnam — a pedestrian type food you pick up at a street corner,” says founder Denise Tran. “You pull up on your scooter, get a banh mi — and you’re good to go.”
In homage, Bun Mee’s logo is a stylized scooter that manages to look both modern and somehow endearing. “Who doesn’t love a scooter? They’re like puppy dogs,” Tran says.
Tran practiced law for four and a half years in Seattle, focusing on business transactions, when a couple of major life-changing events converged: She got engaged, and her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. An only child, she took a leave from the law to nurse him through his final months, then went on a solo trip to Vietnam — from which she and her mother fled as refugees when Tran was just three.
“It was a great trip for me to reconnect with my country,” she says. “And one of my dad’s wishes was to have his ashes brought back to his home country, so I was there for that meaningful reason, too.”
It was then and there that the idea of opening her own restaurant first began to take shape. “I love Vietnamese cuisine,” Tran says. “The food there is phenomenal — and banh mi, especially, was comfort food for me.”
While growing up she got plenty of it from her mother, who she calls Momma Tran and describes as “a self-taught cook who can whip up anything by taste and smell.” Mother and daughter have long cooked side by side. They tweaked favorite recipes and narrowed possible menu offerings in a kitchen Tran plastered with blown-up pictures of banh mi that served as both guidance and inspiration.
When Tran moved to New York to be with her fiance and to decompress after her father’s death, she decided against taking another law job and another bar exam. She concentrated instead on her dream of running her own business. When the couple moved to the Bay Area about 18 months ago, she spent the better part of a year combing neighborhoods for the right location — and found it here.
“Fillmore is Fillmore. It’s one of the best neighborhoods with the best foot traffic,” Tran says. She thought she could never get a place here because of the ban on additional restaurants — just lifted last month — and high rents on the street. “We were fortunate to find out about the space opening before anyone else — and came in and worked with the seller.”
Despite good luck, good timing and the encouragement of a mother who’s also a good cook, Tran, an M.B.A. in addition to a J.D., was smart enough to know what she didn’t know. “I wanted to run a good operation and I knew I didn’t have the experience and background,” she acknowledges. “You might make the most amazing food, but you have to understand food costs, inventory, spoilage — the actual business of running a restaurant — to make it work. For me, that’s just as important as making good food.” She turned to consultants and chefs at the Culinary Edge and credits them with giving Bun Mee “back of the house strength.”
Calling in the consultants, however, doesn’t mean Tran is casting aside help nearer to her heart. “Momma Tran will still be involved,” she says. “She’s so very proud. And she’s close to retiring and wants to move here from Portland to be at the shop.” Tran adds: “She’s very old school. She keeps saying, ‘You’ve hired too many people. I’ve done this all my life. It’s easy for me.’ ”
Tran aims to create a neighborhood spot targeted to local needs and tastebuds. “There are a lot of foodies here who will understand our food,” she says. “And sometimes you need to get a quick meal and not spend a ton of money.” Bun Mee fits that bill. The sandwiches and appetizers range from $5 to $7; starters and sides including Momma Tran’s Crispy Egg Rolls with ground pork, crab meat, wood ear mushrooms and glass noodles go for $3 to $5. Larger salads and entrees such as Saigon Peanut Rice Bowl range from $9 to $12.
After extensive remodeling, the interior now leaves little to recall the previous occupant, Tango Gelato. “The space didn’t have a cooking hood, plumbing, code bathroom, dishwashing area — or really anything we needed,” says Tran. “We basically gutted the place.” She says the zinc countertops, corrugated metal finishes, bicycle wheel chandeliers and Vietnamese photos that grace the spot were chosen in homage to the scooter street food experience. And the pendants glowing in warm hues remind Tran of sitting outside in Ho Chi Minh City.
Bun Mee has hired a staff of 23. “They’re a hodgepodge of people from established Vietnamese restaurants — Slanted Door and the former Bong Su — and some who are knowledgeable about other things,” she says. “And I taste everything everyday to make sure it’s the way it’s supposed to taste.”
While Tran has a tough time picking a favorite among the nine banh mi on the menu, she cops to a special weakness for the turmeric catfish version inspired by a Hanoi dish, and for the pork belly with egg inspired by her mom’s cooking. The sweet and salty pork, braised for several hours, is a common dish in Vietnam. “When I eat it, I think of home and mom,” she says. Other offerings include a Sloppy Bun of curry ground pork, shaved onion and basil — a nod to the Sloppy Joes she loved as a child. And there’s a vegetarian option featuring eggplant instead of the usual tofu.
Delivery and catering will soon be offered at Bun Mee, and a beer and wine license is in the works. But for now, Tran says she has no plans to expand beyond the Fillmore location, at least until she’s convinced that the food and service are consistently done right.
“We want to make sure we make people happy on Fillmore,” she says. “I have the feeling if you can make people on Fillmore happy, you can make anyone happy.”
Filed under: Food, Drink & Lodging