Living in Vancouver in her mid-20s, Jeanette Tran-Dean was struck by the similarities between the food she grew up with and the food her Guatemalan friends ate. “I’d go over for their grandfather’s birthday party or something and they’d have, like, a tamale wrapped in a banana leaf,” she says. “I was like, ‘Vietnamese people wrap everything in banana leaves.’” Another friend’s mom regularly made the Central American-style quesadilla, which is a lot like a sweet, cheesy, rice-flour pound cake—and a lot like the Vietnamese cassava-coconut cake called banh khoai mi nuong.
“The Vietnamese love corn,” she says. “We have avocados. The countries have the same ingredients. They’re just so far apart that they don’t use them the same way. But I think if they were ever introduced it would make so much sense.”
It would take a pandemic to do it, but the two cuisines were finally introduced in November when Tran-Dean, who’s worked in fine dining kitchens all over the city (among them Grace, Oriole, and Smyth) put her head together with her friend David Hollinger, a pastry chef who works at Aya Pastry.
Hollinger grew up Guatemalan in Wausau, Wisconsin, before he moved to Chicago and started cooking in a broad array of Asian restaurants. The two first crossed paths at Kai Zan in 2014 and bonded over their love for Asian pastries and early exposure to the food of each other’s cultures. Over the years they’d spitball ideas from different kitchens, always intending to collaborate on a pop-up, but never getting around to it.
Tran-Dean was on leave from her executive sous chef job at Smyth, honeymooning in Vietnam for a month when the country began shutting down in January 2020. Once home she returned to Smyth until shutdown, then worked takeout from the Loyalist for a while. But she didn’t feel safe after learning she was pregnant. She and her husband decamped for his parents’ place in Minooka to ride it out and recharge her creative batteries.
For Hollinger the situation was the opposite. When he worked at the Bakery at Fat Rice, he’d make maybe 20 egg tarts for the day. During the pandemic, Aya Pastry’s business exploded, and he found himself sometimes making 1,000 dinner rolls in a day. He found the overwork in a booming wholesale business gave him the itch to do his own thing.
Last Saturday they officially launched Giống Giống, a three-weekend stand at the South Loop sandwich shop the Ruin Daily. Conveniently pronounced “yum yum,” with a finishing upward lilt, the expression is Vietnamese for “same-same,” as in sorta the same latitude, same climate, same ingredients, same flavors.
The showstopper on the focused eight-item menu is the banh bao, a sweet, puffy steamed dumpling “as big as a toddler’s head,” according to Tran-Dean, stuffed with Vietnamese pork-mushroom filling, herbaceous Guatemalan longanisa sausage, and a pickled quail egg. “It’s like several different experiences all in the same big package,” says Hollinger.
The chojín salad riffs on the citrusy, minty Guatemalan staple. “There’s tons of these cold radish-pork-based salads in Guatemala that you serve with crunchy things like tostadas,” says Hollinger. From its Vietnamese papaya salad analogue goi du du, they’ve taken fish sauce, shredded papaya, shrimp paste, and shrimp chips.
Tran-Dean and Hollinger, who frequently finish each other’s sentences, say it took them about five minutes to conceive their bruleed fusion of the Guatemalan quesadilla and banh khoai mi nuong, with a side of ice cream.
“That was our last-minute addition,” says Tran-Dean. “I kept looking for them in Chicago and I hadn’t been able to find them. I was like ‘Yo, what’s that heavy thing?’ And I showed you a picture.”
“And then it was, ‘Duh, corn ice cream,”’ says Hollinger.
“It’s a natural pairing.”
Tran-Dean thinks the Vietnamese version is too heavy and sweet to finish, so they added dry, crumbly queso duro. “The salty cheese cuts through sweetness and richness,” says Hollinger. “It’s very chewy. The textures are strangely the same.”
Giống Giống also opened with a pair of banh mi, including one coddling a mushroom-stuffed chile relleno; and a pair of conchas, one filled with a jackfruit-pineapple compote and the other with a coconut-chocolate crémeux, but they plan to mix those up in the remaining weeks with pandan-coconut cream, and lotus root-tres leches versions.
One thing that stays in its lane is the Hanoi-style pho, less herbaceous and less dependent on warm spices than its southern counterpart. It’s served with a deep-fried Chinese-style cruller for dipping into Tran-Dean’s bottomlessly beefy 36-hour stock infused with lip sticky-collagen.
“When there’s a classic, I don’t like to fuck with a good thing,” she says. “In the north they say the south can’t make good soup because of all the herbs and spices—”
“It muddles it,” says Hollinger.
The two remaining weekends—which benefit the west-side mutual aid group Earth’s Remedies—are but a preview of what the pair hope to introduce on a permanent basis after Tran-Dean’s maternity break. In the meantime she’ll be helping out with private dining and menu development at Oriole, while Hollinger continues to work at Aya, but the goal is to have a permanent place all their own.
“The whole point of this project is to just push and see how far we can go; just to create something new,” says Hollinger. v