Illustration by Anika Orrock

Love Letters

The Minnesota Restaurant That Became a Refugee’s American Story

By

In February 1981, David Tran arrived in Rochester, Minnesota as a teenage refugee from Vietnam. He had spent the previous two years barely surviving in a refugee camp. He was without his family, did not speak English, and it was the middle of a frozen Midwestern winter.

Over the subsequent decades, his journey in America would lead him up the hospitality industry ladder from dishwasher to entrepreneur. For the past 24 years, Mr. Tran has been upholding American traditions as the most recent owner of a 53-year-old local institution, the restaurant Cheap Charlie’s.

David Tran in the kitchen. Photo courtesy David Tran

Cheap Charlie’s is one of the last of its era still standing in Rochester, a city of 100,000, probably best known as home to the Mayo Clinic. The restaurant has been operating since 1968 and is steeped in the deep tradition of the classic American diner, serving fresh, made-from-scratch menu items. The meatloaf is hot and made daily. Hash browns and American fries are never frozen and come from just-peeled potatoes. The beef for the hot sandwiches is never deli-bought, but is roasted in-house, and the original ladle is still used to create giant pancakes that allow a family of four to come in and enjoy a breakfast for under $20.  It is the place where former vice president Hubert Humphrey was a regular during stops in his home state, and it still functions as a regular spot for locals and city workers to stop in and socialize.

For all of these reasons, David Tran is very proud.

***

Four years after the end of the Vietnam War, David Tran’s father was concerned that his 17-year-old son would be recruited to join the Communist army. So, during the middle of the night, his father sent him away on a canoe, the first step in the younger Tran’s journey to the United States, with the hope to connect to his siblings and other family members on the way. The canoe carried him to a larger boat. He spent the night calling out the names of his family members with no response. Once daylight came, he was able to see that strangers were layered like sardines on the boat, sitting on top of each other, three people deep. And nowhere could his family be seen.

“How am I going to die?” was all he could think for the next six days while they were at sea. Eventually the boat was rescued, floating somewhere near Indonesia, and he was brought to a refugee camp. The family members he was supposed to meet had been caught and sent back. With only the jeans, sneakers and shirt he left home in, he had no money and no skills. Tran was, in his own words, “a kid.”

He was alone. For two years, he waited for a place to call home.

***

The Tran family, Christmas 1989.

On February 28, 1981, the Catholic Social Services of Rochester sponsored David Tran to come to America. Once there, Tran studied ESL intensely, walking four miles in the Minnesota winter to take the classes offered in the church basement in the morning, and then returning to take the class again in the evening. He doubled up on his English classes until he felt confident he could get a job and start making money.

His first job was as a dishwasher at a local hotel. There, Tran would stay after his shifts and help the pantry person with their prep. When that person called out sick one day, Tran was there to fill in their spot.  He stepped up, and continued to move through the brigade of roles in the hotel kitchen.

He was cooking for a living because he needed to pay rent, but he also loved to learn, and he began to realize that cooking was something he was good at. “I’m very calm. I never yell, never rush,” he says, describing his kitchen demeanor, “For some reason, I’m very good at this.” After slowly moving up to sous chef, Tran was encouraged by his chef to enroll in the Culinary program at the local community college. He obtained his two-year Associates of Arts Degree and became the general manager of the hotel. “I didn’t realize I loved it this much.”

All aspects of the food and beverage industry fascinated Tran, and so after learning what he could from the hotel, he moved into fast food.  For two years he worked as the general manager for all of Rochester’s four Hardee’s locations. The franchise, he explains, helped him learn the business side of food: not only how to make profits, but also the importance of understanding what the clientele wants.

Then came Cheap Charlie’s. According to Tran, he was just in the “right place at the right time” when he became the owner of the legendary diner in 1997. The owner of Cheap Charlie’s was looking for someone who could take over and continue the tradition: He wanted the menu to stay the same, with everything made from scratch. For two weeks, Tran worked with the outgoing owner in the kitchen, proving that he could handle the rushes and respect the food. A banking friend offered a personal loan; Tran was able to source the rest. The sale was made.

Photo courtesy David Tran

Being Asian in a predominantly white city in Minnesota, Tran was apprehensive about whether or not folks would accept him right away as the new owner. “People are afraid of change,” he explains. For the first six months that he owned Cheap Charlie’s, he did not tell anyone. In fact, he asked the outgoing owner if he would do him a favor and stay around, pretending to work there. Tran wanted the customers and staff to be able to slowly adapt to him. He talked to the regulars until they all knew him, and he quietly gave the staff raises. Tran acted as a kitchen manager under the old owner for nearly a year before he felt confident everything would be normal.

Over the years, Tran’s wife, Jenna, was able to quit her department store job and join him at the restaurant. He has added a few menu items — a western omelet and lasagna special — but nothing has been taken away. At Cheap Charlie’s you can count on the portions being big and the prices low — he’s a chef who cuts the sirloin himself to keep the cost down, and then uses the trimmings for beef gravy.  For him, it doesn’t matter if it is a 5-star hotel or a diner, “ you got to know who your clientele is. What do they love?”

Over the years Tran has fallen in love with his restaurant and what it means for the city of Rochester. He feels fortunate that he and his wife have been able to keep their doors open. Like many others, their business has barely survived the pandemic. But a GoFundMe campaign set up by his daughter helped get them through the shutdown. “I consider myself a very lucky guy. Considering where I am and where I am coming from. I’m not surprised by anything anymore.”

Looking ahead, he would eventually like to help another immigrant family that would like to settle down and take over the restaurant: “I want them to be a success.”

But that will probably be much further in the future. For now, David Tran enjoys waking up early and working with his wife. He isn’t ready to give up yet. “We still love it.”

Cheap Charlie’s is located at 11 5th St NW, Rochester, MN 55901, (507) 289-7693. They are currently open for carry out and limited dine in service.

***

Nyanyika Banda is currently staying at home, writing and planning for when we can all sit at the table together again. Follow her on Instagram at @nyks1981. Follow @Resy, too.

 

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