Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by San San Tofu, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “Don’t let an idea stop you from becoming a vegetarian.”
Is it difficult to be a vegetarian?
Kimberly Tran is the manager of San San Tofu, and has been a vegetarian for twenty years. When contemplating this question, she said, “It’s just an idea that prevents you from becoming vegetarian. Maybe it’s ‘meat dishes taste better than vegetarian dishes.’ Or, ‘I can’t always be vegetarian.’”
The possibilities for vegetarian options in restaurants, however, have come a long, long way, explained Kimberly. Indeed, many people may be surprised to discover the phenomenal flavors infused in veggie-focused meals in the present day. “Try a meal,” said Kimberly easily, “don’t let a thought stop you.”
Although business was negatively affected during the pandemic, San San Tofu has survived with Kimberly’s love, and continues to provide delicious vegetarian food to customers. Kimberly also has a long history with Tzu Chi, and has readily joined the Very Veggie Movement. Together, we’re making it easier for people to become vegetarians.
Upon setting foot inside the eatery in Houston, one can find a wonderful array of delicious vegetarian foods. One’s eyes and nose are easily drawn to sesame balls and vegetarian steamed dumplings for breakfast, to delicious Vietnamese soup noodles and veggie Hainanese ‘chicken’ rice for lunch, and to marinated ready-to-eat foods and cooking materials. In fact, there are more than 100 vegetarian meals, dim sum, and snacks to choose from.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, however, and neither was San San Tofu. The vegetarian haven cost Kimberly Tran twenty years of hard work.
A Decision Made in a Heartbeat That Endured for Decades
“In 2000, I became a vegetarian. I’ve been in the restaurant industry, and when I became a vegetarian I thought, ‘why not open a vegetarian restaurant?’” recalled Kimberly Tran. “I am not a chef, but once you make up your mind, do the right thing with your heart, and God will help you.”
Twenty years ago, there were not many vegetarian restaurants in Houston. Kimberly remembers only two others in total. After San San Tofu opened, it was welcomed readily by the community. Customers came by to enjoy their morning tea, purchase lunch, or bought snacks to bring home for later.
Gradually, more and more vegetarian restaurants opened in Houston. “Every vegetarian restaurant here has its own style and each makes its own flavors. It’s really good and gives the people more choices,” said Kimberly good-naturedly.
Kimberly then recalled a time when she’d worked in a non-vegetarian restaurant, she always carried a certain scent with her that she was not fond of, she said. When she returned home from work, that smell had permeated even the inner layers of her clothing. Later, when she began working in a vegetarian restaurant, she felt she still smelled quite clean after a long day, and recognized the smell she found to be unpleasant was that of meat products.
Kimberly said that becoming a vegetarian has helped her stay healthy and free from miscellaneous ailments. She devotes all her time to the operation of San San Tofu, working more than twelve hours per day, and for six to seven days per week. “But maybe because I eat vegetarian, I don’t feel so tired or heavy,” said Kimberly.
Simple and Appetizing
“I don’t do advertising; we rely on word-of-mouth. If our customers love our food, they will spread the word and bring more customers. That’s how we build our reputation.” In running a vegetarian restaurant, Kimberly keeps it simple. While talking about the secret for cooking good vegetarian food, Kimberly follows the same principle: “Simple is delicious. For example, tofu. You slice it, fry it slightly with a spoon of oil and add a little salt. That’s already delicious. Or you can steam it, add some soy sauce, and that’s also very good. There is no secret, you don’t need a secret to make vegetables taste good.”
With such a wide range of delightful vegetarian dishes, customers never get bored at San San Tofu. “We make many different kinds of vegetarian foods using Cantonese and Vietnamese flavors. There are set meals and snacks, and ready-to-eat products for customers to bring home.”
According to Kimberly, San San Tofu often revamps the menu to bring in new flavors, although classic dishes requested by guests also remain on the menu.
Tomato Noodle Soup: Fresh tomatoes are used to create the vibrant colors of this tasty dish, and the broth is delightfully robust in flavor. San San Tofu adds soy milk to the boiling sweet-and-sour broth, which quickly condenses into rich and tender “egg shreds.” Paired with eryngii mushrooms, fresh vegetables, coriander leaves, and Vietnamese rice noodles, this fragrant and warm tomato noodle soup nourishes the spirit.
Combo Lunch: If you want to try more of San San Tofu’s vegetarian dishes, go for the combo lunch set with three dishes and one soup. There are fourteen excellent dishes to choose from every day. These include classic bean curd rolls with tofu, mushrooms, vermicelli, and other fillings wrapped in crispy bean curd skin — which are then steamed, and stewed in soy sauce. Another popular option is the marinated stew of bamboo shoots and Taiwanese-style eggplant. For each meal, one can also select white rice, brown rice, fried rice, or fried noodles to go with the meal.
Vegan Dim Sum: Dim sum has gained significant interest at San San Tofu as well, attracting many guests to sip their morning tea and enjoy the unique Cantonese flavors in the pleasant atmosphere. The most popular dim sum is the sweet sesame ball, consisting of white sesame with mung bean filling, and black sesame with taro filling. Both are sweet, but not greasy. Even if one is quite full, it’s hard to turn down a little dessert. There are also vegan ‘shrimp’ dumplings, vegan shumai, vegan radish cakes, glutinous rice dumplings, vegan spring rolls, taro dumplings, tofu pudding, black soy milk, and more. Although the dim sum is available until 3 PM, guests might already find multiple empty plates just after noontime.
“Many people think vegetarian food is light and tasteless, but it’s not true. Don’t let this idea stop you from trying a vegetarian diet. Vegan food nowadays is rich and tasty,” said Kimberly.
Upholding Love for Others
Kimberly’s relationship with Tzu Chi began relatively early on. San San Tofu’s reputation for tasty vegetarian food had naturally caught the attention of many Tzu Chi members and volunteers in the Houston area, and Kimberly’s eldest son also studied Chinese at a local school founded by Tzu Chi. However, Kimberly’s bond with Tzu Chi does not end with day-to-day routines.
When a Tzu Chi volunteer named Jennifer An was about to travel to Haiti for a disaster relief mission, Kimberly donated some of San San Tofu’s vegetarian goods so Tzu Chi could deliver her love to those who endured the terrible disaster. And this time, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kimberly and San San Tofu also actively joined Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement, working hard to promote ethical lifestyle choices, and praying for the end of the pandemic.
“Actually, I am very grateful. When the pandemic started in March, we planned to close down for the safety of the customers and our employees, leaving only the wholesale tofu part. No walk-in, no dining, and no take-out. We planned to close for two weeks starting March 16th. But right away, our customers called in and asked us why we weren’t doing takeaway and why the grocery stores are closed. They need to buy our food. There was such a disappointment that I didn’t expect.” When reflecting on the support of customers during this difficult time, Kimberly was both touched and thankful. “We closed only for three days and then opened the drive-through, and customers wait in line to buy our things. Yes, the business is affected by the pandemic, but overall it’s okay; we survived.”
Dining-in at restaurants in Houston was permitted once again in June, and San San Tofu made careful efforts to uphold health precautions. Tables and chairs were adjusted to allow for proper social distancing between customers, and strict sanitation measures were put in place to support the health of both visitors and employees.
In the middle of the hall also hangs the words of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the founder of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation. Some guests liked it enough to ask where one can buy a Jing Si Aphorism for their own home, and Kimberly swiftly contacted Tzu Chi volunteers to acquire some for her customers. Clean, tasty vegetarian food and words of inspiration create an atmosphere that certainly calms the mind — and all thanks to a decision made in the space of a heartbeat twenty years ago.
San San Tofu
6445 Wilcrest Dr, Houston, TX 77072
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!