Tram's Kitchen is a family restaurant in every sense: The Le family does everything from waiting tables to cooking mouthwatering, authentic Vietnamese dishes. And the customers seem to be at home; in fact, one diner is so comfortable that he starts softly singing along to a Bryan Adams song that's playing in the background: "It isn't hard to believe this is heaven."
Customers laugh and talk to Mrs. Le in Vietnamese. When two women walk in with what might be the chubbiest baby in the world, everyone turns to look and smile. When Le Thao, the proprietor, comes to take their order, one of the women says hello and tells him that her sister will be joining them shortly. There's a sense everybody knows each other.
The space inside Tram's is as cozy and unpretentious as my grandma's kitchen. The tables are covered in bright vinyl tablecloths patterned with green ferns, and food is served on colorful, mismatched plates. Restaurant reviews are proudly hung on the blue walls, next to pictures of herds of white horses streaming down a black mother-of-pearl mountain.
Tram's serves food specific to southern Vietnam. The fare is simple in the best possible way: The ingredients are not canned or frozen, and are prepared to bring out the best in each element of a dish. This is the type of fresh wholesome food you could easily eat daily -- the type of meal a family would share together at home.
Our appetizer, the fresh spring rolls -- noodles, vegetables and fresh herbs in a neatly tucked wrapper -- are the closest thing to a mouthful of spring air on a winter day. The vegetables and tofu entrÃ©e gives off the rich smell of sesame oil reminiscent of dark roast coffee. The pork vermicelli is sprinkled with crushed peanuts and topped with a chili sauce that is more surprisingly sweet than spicy. Some of the table-side condiments -- savory black bean sauce and hot chili sauce -- taste homemade. All this, plus a rich, creamy iced coffee, and the bill only came to 20 dollars and some change.
Tram's Kitchen was opened in 1997, and was named after Mr. Le's daughter, Tram. It took the Le family many years to bring Tram from Vietnam to join them in the United States. Mr. and Mrs. Le originally moved to Pittsburgh from California in 1992 because their son needed a kidney transplant. Mr. Le describes the success of the operation as "miraculous."
Now, Mr. Le considers Tram the owner and himself as "more of a manager." Not surprisingly, there is a strong tradition of cooking in the family. One son worked at an Italian restaurant, and Mr. Le's grandmother-in-law ran a successful bar and restaurant in Saigon for 50 years. Mr. Le credits two things for the success of his business. One is the simplicity of the food and the atmosphere that tells people that "rich or poor, everyone can come."
The other is his family. He explains that the hard work of his wife and daughter pays off in the food. When customers taste their dishes, "They stay completely satisfied," he says. Mr. Le even claims that one can even become addicted to the food. He says that no matter where his patrons travel, they always come back and tell him that his dishes are the best they've ever tasted. No wonder the philosophy of Tram's Kitchen is: "When we eat good, we want you to eat good."