Stephanie Burnette, a freelance food writer for the Greenville Journal, recounts her personal experiences with Mekong Restaurant chef Huy Tran — and his impact on Greenville’s food scene.
Chef Huy Tran, co-owner with his mother of Mekong Restaurant on Wade Hampton Boulevard, suffered a fatal heart attack Monday night, to the shock of his family, friends and employees. I’m in Florida on assignment this week and a mutual friend reached out with news of a Facebook post. I made a call — and in one of those moments that the world slows — learned that Huy was no longer with us.
I had lunch at Mekong last Friday; I sat at my normal table next to the window by the side door, ordered a rice flour crepe and followed that with a request.
“Can you ask chef what else I’d like to eat for lunch?” I asked.
It was our catch phrase, a nearly 10-year tradition.
Tran came out of the kitchen, phone in hand. He showed me the latest rendering of his upcoming project, a fusion concept called Southern Soy. He hoped to open the restaurant in downtown Woodruff. The rent was right, he said, and the community reminded him of Greenville about 15 years ago.
It was last spring that he asked me to stop by; he wanted to share an idea with me. He said Southern Soy would be the culmination of his life’s work, a restaurant that would marry his culinary training and fine-dining experience with the ingredients of Vietnamese cuisine. He was nervous about it. He asked if I thought it would work. As I recall, my response included that fusion was no longer novel to the South Carolina diner and his Mekong audience would drive any distance to experience this type of menu from him.
I met chef Tran the week Mekong opened in 2011. The building was an empty Arby’s. It wasn’t a happening part of Wade Hampton Boulevard. There was no Lidl, no QuikTrip, no Walmart Neighborhood Market surrounding it yet. Wade Hampton High School had just been refaced and the Fine Arts Center relocated next to it, but that was about the extent of progress.
My husband sat in the car while I cased it out; I waved him in and we had a fantastic lunch. Many of the dishes I knew nothing about, but there were layers of flavor and a freshness that felt absent in Greenville’s dining scene at the time (and the price — we ate like kings for less than $25). I returned as an enthusiastic patron of Mekong and told friends to try it. Thankfully, there were about a dozen others doing similar things, and soon Mekong had a bevy of curious locals, bewildered by the traditional Saigon dishes but hungry for more.
I wrote about Mekong many times over the last decade and lots of other media outlets did, too. It’s one of just a few restaurants that I often see colleagues at, such as Lillia Callum-Penso, Brett Barest and Jamarcus Gaston, and chefs, who in their precious time-off will frequent Mekong. I once wrote a feature about Greenville dining and asked six restaurateurs whom they most wanted to collaborate with. It became simply comical when each one said chef Huy Tran.
Much of the food and beverage community has reached out to each other over the last two days. Chef Greg McPhee of The Anchorage wrote notably to me: “Where to eat on your day off comes up in kitchens all the time. The one constant on everyone’s list is Mekong. This is a true loss for the food community. I hope that his family can continue on and that we will rally to support a true gem of a restaurant.”
And, from chef Anthony Gray of Bacon Bros. Public House: “I knew Huy from back in Charleston but really fell in love with his cuisine after he opened Mekong with his mother. His passion and excitement for ingredients was incredible. Huy opened up a whole new world of flavors, textures and techniques to me. A great talent and kindhearted soul that will be missed greatly.”
As I recall from past interviews, Tran immigrated from Vietnam to Greenville with his mother, Lan, I believe as an early teen. He attended Wade Hampton High School. He was good at chemistry, though he didn’t speak much English. He told me once he could understand English within three months, something that bends my brain. He said his mom hoped he’d go to medical school but he planned to become a chef and applied to Johnson & Wales in Charleston. As of today, culinary school runs about $64,000 a year, about three to four times the cost of attending Clemson. I can’t imagine how he paid for it, but Tran was soon employed as a staff chef in top restaurants in Charleston, then in the ski resorts of the western United States and then in Mississippi, where he opened restaurants for a prominent group.
It was his mom who “called him home” to Greenville to open a Saigon-style restaurant: very traditional, very authentic. He told me the old Arby’s location was no fluke; it was halfway between two Asian markets and close to churches the Vietnamese community attended. They would be open on Sunday and Monday, a rarity in Greenville. He called the building “the gatehouse” of Wade Hampton High School, and sought out students to employ and introduce to the restaurant business. The drive-thru concrete pad immediately became a container garden, filled with herbs and vegetables for the restaurant’s extensive seasonal menu. I used to drive our out-of-town friends around the back of the building to see it. Mekong was Greenville’s first farm-to-table restaurant before the trend ever got to Main Street.
Something I never wrote in a story before today is that Tran told me he picked the building because he and his mom could afford to buy it and — if it didn’t lose money — he had saved enough to stay open for five years and let MeKong find its audience. He never needed the looky-loos like me, but we were welcomed with open arms.
The last dish chef Tran sent out to me was a matchstick taro salad topped with hand-pulled chicken and boiled shrimp, fresh herbs, and a spicy vinaigrette. In nine years and countless meals, I had never seen this dish. And now, I won’t forget it.
Huy Tran, 47, is survived by his mother, Lan, his wife, Hien, and their son Bao, who turns 3 this summer. Mass in celebration of his life will be held on Friday, March 13, 2020, and Saturday, March 14, 2020, at Our Lady of La Vang Catholic Church in Greer.
I hope you’ll eat at Mekong soon — and celebrate Huy Tran’s indelible mark on Greenville’s dining community.
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The last dish prepared for me by Chef Huy Tran of @mekongrstsc just last Friday. Got to see Baby Bao too. This taro salad showed his deft hand and our friendship. I asked, will you make me what you want for lunch? It was complex and fresh and perfectly delectable. A heart attack took his life too soon this week and I am devastated. He immigrated from Vietnam to Greenville, attending Wade Hampton HS. He graduated from Johnson & Wales Culinary School when it was in Charleston and worked in fine dining in CHS and then the resorts of Colorado and then Mississippi before returning to Gvl to open a traditional Saigon restaurant alongside his mother. He just shared images with me of his newest project on the horizon. He brought the flavors of Vietnam to us in the most beautiful way and I will miss your presence and the way you mentored your staff and cared about serving your guests and super fans. I once interviewed restaurateurs and chefs for a Greenville News Special dining edition and asked each one: what chef do you most want to collaborate with? Every single one said Chef Huy Tran; each one frequented Mekong in awe of his menu. #eatdrinkcarolinas #heartbroken #mekong #rip