A little more than a year ago, Duy Tran was selling food out of his car in front of Wonder Bar. Now, he has just celebrated the first anniversary of serving up food-nerd favorites like french fries with chicken hearts out of his Somerville brick and mortar shop DooWee & Rice. Eater caught up with the former competitive break dancer to talk about the first year of operation, the inspiration behind his unusual menu, and how expansion plans to Allston and London are shaping up.
Congratulations on one year of DooWee & Rice! Can you tell us a bit about your background and how the restaurant came to be?
After high school, I went to school for business. I got my Associate's degree and I was about to transfer and decided it wasn't for me. I don't really have the patience to sit at a desk for too long; I like being on the move. I used to travel with my friends competing in break dancing. We would travel to different parts of the US, stay at random hotels, and eat a ton of street food. Everywhere we went, there were these people trying to make good food with nothing.
I first started at Wonder Bar, selling some of my food out of my car right up front. I just announced it on Facebook and people would hear about it and buy a ton of food. It got more popular, they brought me inside, and then a few months after that I found this place. It's funny that I am going to be going back there on a larger scale.
How's that project [building a restaurant in Wonder Bar] coming along?
We are trying to finish everything up and get all the blueprints done, and then we'll know the exact start date of construction. It's downstairs, we are adding a full kitchen. There should be a 55-seat restaurant and food is going to be available upstairs as well. In total, it's going to be almost 200 seats.
How about the London franchise of Doowee?
I am a little tied up here with this and Wonderbar. London is going to be on hold for a little bit. There's not a rush, because there's a business running there right now that belongs to my buddy.
Any memories from the opening?
Honestly, after a few months I forgot how hard it was in the beginning. I went through everything kind of blind, just from stuff I read in forums online. I had been a private chef before, so I didn't have much hands on knowledge of running a restaurant. I kind of learned from my parents' convenience store, just trying to maintain a bit of order with paperwork and everything. In the beginning, I think I wanted too much for my menu.
You make it very clear on your website that you don't offer a traditional Vietnamese menu. Do you feel any pressure to add more traditional Vietnamese dishes?
Honestly, no. If people are really looking for a traditional Vietnamese place, there are other places where they can go. I ask them to try my food, and I am pretty sure they are not going to be turned off by it. I think I make a big enough point of it online that we do different things here so people can't come in expecting five-star dining or crazy contemporary plating. Though, I would want to attempt that, especially at Wonder Bar. That's where I am going to really perform a lot of my recipes that I've been holding back because we don't have the space and we don't have the manpower here to do it proficiently. If I were to try that right now, the next person is going to wait 20 minutes for their dish.
Tell us about your personal history with some of the dishes you serve.
My earliest memories of bao bao is probably dim sum growing up in California. My first experience with it was just a normal Chinese char siu [barbecue pork] bao. Ever since then, I've seen a progression — those really intricate braised pork belly baos with the giant layers of fat. The chicken and rice dish is really popular in New York, with The Halal Cart. The first time I ever had chicken hearts was at dim sum, but they fried it and rolled it with garlic. And then I had it at the Brazilian barbecue places — skewers of chicken hearts. I put the hearty fries on there originally as a specialty item. I didn't think it was going to take off as much as it did, but it's one of our most popular items. We actually sell out of the chicken hearts often.
Your menu changes often. What sort of things are you thinking about for the fall?
I definitely want to add a lot of soups. I just need to find areas of my kitchen where I can put little soup kettles. Other than that, I want to do a lot of baked dishes. I have an Asian version of potpies, so we'll be doing a ton of that. I have one that's a pork belly potpie, and it has an entire pork belly strip sticking out of it.
What's the biggest lesson you learned in your first year that you wish you knew on opening night?
Keep better track of my paper work! My first round of taxes was kind of crazy, going back through bags and bags of receipts to make sure I had all my paperwork lined up. Other than that, I would have not overloaded myself with work every day. At first, I would be up at 5 AM, going through a checklist. But now, I never write a list, because I am always here so I am seeing what's going in and what's going out. I used to wake up panicking: "oh my god I completely forgot what I need, I need to have it written down," but now I think I am comfortable with everything the way it's going.
Eater Boston intern Gabe Bellegard Bastos conducted and transcribed this interview.