During our time in Dallas for the annual CEDIA Expo, we were forced to go out to have breakfast on a number of occasions due to the fact that the restaurant at the brand new Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Dallas was not yet open. A place we went to a couple three times that was in close proximity to the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center was a Jewish deli/restaurant/bakery by the name of Cindi's New York Delicatessen.
The "Cindi" behind Cindi's New York Deli isn't named Cindi, she isn't Jewish and she didn't come from New York. Her name is Ahn Vo Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who escaped post-war Vietnam with her husband and small baby in a small boat in 1979. Ahn was a newly married 18-year-old when the Viet Cong overran Saigon in 1975. Her husband, Hong Tran, was an officer in the South Vietnamese army who was subsequently arrested and sent to a mountainous prison in the northern part of Vietnam. After her husband was arrested, other North Vietnamese army soldiers raided the Tran's home and took whatever valuables they had. However, Ahn had hid a number of diamonds and gold pieces that her mother had given her for a wedding gift.
Over the next 3 plus years, Ahn traveled over treacherous roadways and in dangerous circumstances to try to get her husband out of prison. She was caught and detained by a North Vietnamese soldier on her first trip to try to see her husband. After explaining her circumstance, she was let go. However, a few weeks later the same soldier showed up at her home in Saigon asking for payments to help get her husband out of prison. She gave him half of her dowry and then had to make subsequent trips to the prison over the next couple of years to give the guard more of her valuables. When she was down to literally nothing left from what her mother had given her, her husband was suddenly released from the prison in 1979.
Knowing that they had to flee Vietnam after her husband was released, they began to make plans to do so. However, when they started out to get to the small Vietnamese fishing village in the Mekong delta where they would get on a boat to get out of the country, Ahn was seven months pregnant. Her husband tried to learn how to deliver a baby on a boat, but the couple thought that it may be best to wait until the baby was born. 19 days before they took off on a small vessel with 200 other refugees, their daughter was born. They named her Minh-Hai after the Vietnamese province they were in before they took off for Indonesia.
During the two weeks at sea, the boat the Tran's were on with the other refugees was robbed four times by sea pirates. By the time they got to Indonesia, all they had left was the clothes on their backs and the small towel that was used to wrap around her daughter.
From Indonesia the Tran's were relocated to Texas, sponsored by a Dallas group who helped refugees get to the U.S. who only asked that they get paid back over time once the refugees started to get work. To the Tran's, the United States was like another planet. The English she thought she knew from Vietnam was completely different in Dallas. They had no transportation and no prospects for work. But she had a work ethic that she got from her mother who ran her own company before it was taken over by the Communists in the mid-70's. Ahn took in clothes for sewing and alterations while her husband got a job at minimum wage in an electronics factory.
Things took off from there - Ahn opened her own sewing/alterations business while her husband became a technician for Xerox. Their family grew, as well - the eventually had two boys and another daughter that were born in the U.S. Within three years, the Tran's had saved up enough money to guy a small grocery/meat market/delicatessen. In the kitchen was an older lady who taught Ahn Vo Tran to cook down-home Texas favorites. (When asked one time why she never opened a Vietnamese restaurant, Ahn Vo Tran confessed that she never cooked when she was in Vietnam. She said she cooked American food better than Vietnamese food.)
The profits from the market/deli allowed the Tran's to buy a convenience store in 1986. More profits from that endeavor were used to buy a defunct delicatessen along the North Central Expressway in Dallas. It was called Cindy's New York Delicatessen and she changed the "y" to an "i", called back many of the employees and reopened the deli in 1989.
However, business was tough right off the bat - thanks to an extensive construction project on the North Central Expressway. Undeterred, Ahn Vo Tran started a lunch delivery service to office buildings in the immediate area. She also did some catering on the side. Within a couple three years, her husband had sold the convenience store and joined Ahn as her bakery manager. The couple began to sell their bagels and Jewish breads to restaurants and country clubs.
Today, there are five Cindi's New York Delicatessen locations around the Dallas area. Authentic New York deli sandwiches, 15 different flavors of bagels, cakes, pies and Challah bread, business lunch catering, as well as breakfast served all day makes Cindi's one of the more popular places in the greater Dallas area.
The Cindi's in downtown Dallas is located along S. Houston St., across from Union Station, in the shadow of Reunion Tower, and less than a five minute walk from Dealey Plaza and the John F. Kennedy Sixth Floor Museum. (see map) In what was a big city moment for me, we had parked on the street but I couldn't use any money in the meter. Sort of confused, I was in a quandary how to pay for the parking. Thankfully, my colleague Matt had an app that he uses in San Francisco and Seattle to pay for on-street metered parking.
On our visits to Cindi's we had between 6 to 8 people in tow when we went in for breakfast. Our first day, we parked ourselves at a large table near the front of the restaurant. Cindi's featured a handful of booths along the wall with a number of four-seater tables in the middle that could be easily moved together if more people were in the party.
The menu at Cindi's New York Delicatessen is an interesting mix of Jewish staples and Texas-style down-home foods. Lox and bagels, Matzo Brie scrambled eggs, and potato latke's are found alongside the Tex-Mex omelet, chicken-fried steak and pigs-in-a-blanket for breakfast dishes. Pancakes, waffles, French toast and different egg dishes are available along with New York-style deli favorites like pastrami, sliced beef-tongue and chopped liver sandwiches.
On my first visit to Cindi's, I got the sausage and mushroom omelet. It was topped with with shredded cheddar cheese where most of it had melted on top of the omelet. The omelet was thin - just as I like my omelets - and chock full of chunks of sausage, sliced mushrooms, and more cheddar cheese. It was a good - and filling - omelet.
My colleague Mitch - who hails from Montreal and was on his first visit to Texas - went with the state dish of Texas, chicken-fried steak. It featured two large breaded beef cutlets dredged and fried, then topped with a white gravy. Fried potatoes came on the side. About halfway through the first cutlet, I asked him how he liked it. "Good. It's good," he replied. "I didn't know what I was getting when I ordered it, but I'm glad I got it." I figured that between him having Tex-Mex food, Whataburger, and chicken-fried steak that he would be an honorary Texan before he left the Lone Star State.
On subsequent visits, I got the blueberry waffles that featured plump blueberries with whipped cream topping a good-sized circular waffle, and the other day I went with the corned beef hash and eggs breakfast. The corned beef hash was very good with large chunks of beef mixed in with potatoes. And I can't complain about the blueberry waffles. It was good, but it was too much food for me to finish.
And that's the one thing that we learned about our breakfasts at Cindi's New York Delicatessen - we didn't go away hungry from the place. The breakfasts we all had were good, not outstanding, but good. If there was any one thing that I could give a sour grade to Cindi's would be that it was a little expensive to eat there. But the food was good and that's the bottom line. And the backstory of Ahn Vo Tran's adversity and subsequent triumph alone is worth a visit to any of the locations. We're going to be back in Dallas later this year for the 2016 CEDIA Expo and I'm sure that we'll go to Cindi's a couple times while we're there.