by Graham Duncan
The Tran Family at the opening of their current location at 360 Spadina Ave. (1989) Left to right: Danny Tran, De Tran, Huong Tran, Dat Chuong Tran, Anna Tran, John Tran
One day while I was working in the shop I began chatting to a very engaging customer. She spoke thoughtfully about Kensington and Chinatown; the past, present and the future. I was impressed. And rightly so, as she turned out to be Jessica Tran whose family own Tap Phong, the amazing kitchen supply store on Spadina Avenue.
Barely a day goes by at Sanagan’s Kensington where we don’t run over to Tap Phong for a ladle, or box of skewers, or a pack of deli bags. So, when Jessica and her cousin, Lili, whose grandparents started Tap Phong back in Vietnam, consented to share some of their family’s Lunar New Year traditions and to talk about the store, I was thrilled. I love Tap Phong!
The Tran’s fled their home as boat people during the late stages of the Vietnam War. After a period in a Malaysian refugee camp, they gained sponsorship to Canada and soon after established the business in Chinatown, run as a partnership between brothers John and Danny with their wives, Anna and De. Lili and Jessica are part of the third generation of Trans at Tap Phong.
The strength of the Tran family bonds that allowed them to survive such a tumultuous past and prosper as they do today are celebrated at Lunar New Year or Tết as it’s called in Vietnamese.
“Our tradition is to gather on New Year’s Eve at Lili’s mom’s house”, says Jessica. “It’s a big feast — a lot of courses; dishes symbolizing wealth, happiness, fortune. Noodles equal longevity; duck or poultry for good fortune. Lili’s grandmother’s classic recipe is braised duck”. Lili continues, “The main dish is usually this big soup at the centre of the table. It’s got: chicken broth; carrots carved into flowers; daikon; napa cabbage; liver; shrimp balls; fish mah — the ladies love it, it’s full of collagen — pork-and-shrimp balls. It’s big”.
You can see that the Trans don’t kid around when it comes to Tết feasting but if Jessica’s any indication, they eat well the rest of the year too. “I love the product quality and selection at Sanagan’s. It’s like a candy shop. I get giddy. I cook just for myself so I can never buy all the things I want. I like to stock up on bacon for the weekend. I love the hanger steak with chimichurri; that’s great on the stovetop. If I’m treating myself - ribeye.”
If you’ve ever seen the sheer quantity of items at Tap Phong, you would understand that keeping track of it all would work up quite an appetite. Lili and Jessica fire off a cross section of what crosses the counter: “Portion control containers; spider strainers; bubble tea urns; dim sum steamers — “there were so many dim sum houses” — COVID stuff, like take-out supplies and insulated bags for delivery guys; industrial mixers; $20,000 refrigerator units; 6 ft pitchforks for barbecue restaurants”. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg lettuce.
Quantity is one thing but the Tran's multi-generational understanding of their clientele and adapting as that clientele evolves is what defines a lot of their success. “When you have families coming to a new country, they’re just on survival mode”, says Lili. “You offer experience. Maybe they want to make dough. They don’t need a Planetary Mixer. They just need a dough spiralizer. Most people don’t know that exists. It makes my heart sing to help people find what they really need”.
If you spend any time in the kitchen, do yourself a favour and visit Tap Phong, once the lockdown’s over. Or check them out at tapphong.com for curbside pick up. If your heart doesn’t sing while you shop, you’ve got a tone deaf ticker.