At Minato, Alex Tran Mixes Modern and Traditional Influences
The inside of Minato's new location, at 1013 N. Charles St., is decorated just to Alex Tran's tastes. Original woodwork and elegant Victorian mantelpieces are gaudily gilt and topped with nouveau sculptures. "I love antiques, but I also like things that are very modern," says Tran, the restaurant's chef and owner.
Likewise, Baltimore is Tran's kind of city. "I like that it's a small town, but it's a small big town," he says. His affection for interior design, cooking, and the town he calls home may be the result of the mixture of cultures that have influenced him.
Tran was 26 when he came to America in 1979. He was one of the "boat people"--refugees fleeing the communist regime in post-war Vietnam. Most of his family settled in Los Angeles, but Tran was sent east to North Carolina by the church group that sponsored him as a refugee. He learned how to cook by starting as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant in Greenville. He moved north to Baltimore in 1980 looking for better pay, and in 1983 opened a Chinese carry-out joint with his then-girlfriend (now his wife).
In 1986 Tran opened his first Japanese restaurant, called Orion, in Towson, but after just two years, he sold his interest in it and moved on to other business ventures, including a service that distributed food to large passenger and commercial ships.
Han Quan, a friend of Tran's for 22 years, suggested that they partner on a Vietnamese restaurant in the basement of a building at Charles and Madison streets in Mount Vernon. They opened Co Chin, which later, in 1989, added sushi to the menu and changed its name to Minato.
"Russia and China were opening up, so it was becoming hard to make money selling food to ships," Tran says. "I was selling fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, 1,000 pounds at a time, but there got to be so much competition, so I said, `Let's do a restaurant.'"
Over the years, Tran has become a refreshingly original and daring sushi chef, blending the modern and traditional just as he did with Minato's décor. "Raw fish is raw fish," he says. "It all depends on the dipping sauces and what kind of vegetables you use. If you put two drops of oil in a sauce, it comes out totally different."
And his artistic eye influences not just the taste of his food but its appearance as well. "Think of it like looking at a beautiful woman or a handsome guy, you know, people who know how to dress. It catches your eye, and people say, `Wow!'"
His coup de grâce, is the monkfish liver sashimi ("Japanese pâté," he calls it), with slices of monkfish liver mounted like ruined classical columns on a heap of cucumber and razor-thin apple slices, drizzled with a fragrant sesame-seed sauce.
He pours a few dashes of the seeds into a small ceramic bowl and holds it out for me to smell. Tran raises his eyebrows suggestively, but I smell nothing. Then he pulls the bowl away and, with a small mortar, grinds the seeds up and passes the bowl my way again. The difference is extreme. Most chefs, he says, use greasy sesame oil rather than make their own sauce. These cooks, Tran says, don't know the joy of inserting a little art into your cooking, and that, he says, is the chef's job.
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