Huong “CoCo” Tran’s journey to opening the upscale vegetarian restaurant Roots began in 1975 when she and some family members left Vietnam, in a boat with no food or water, during the Communist takeover. They were adrift for two days and two nights before being rescued. After bouncing around several Asian countries trying to find safe harbor, CoCo landed in Louisville, where her brother was studying at the University of Louisville’s JB Speed School of Engineering. Although she had come to the US with nothing, with the help of some family and other local Vietnamese, and after six years of low-paying factory work, CoCo’s entrepreneurial spirit would eventually triumph.
A trip to a fast food restaurant inspired her to open the Egg Roll Machine in 1980, the city’s first Chinese fast food. In 1986, she brought Louisville its first Vietnamese restaurant, Café Mimosa. Then, after she had converted to Zen Buddhism and become a vegetarian herself for philosophical, environmental, and health reasons in 1998, she sold those restaurants to two nephews and ventured into vegetarian cuisine opening Zen Garden and Zen Tea House in 2000. The change not only gave her a new direction in the restaurant business, but cleared up her allergies and asthma and improved her immunity and overall health.
In 2011, Roots and its fast-casual sister restaurant Heart & Soy were born. Whereas Heart & Soy offers mostly carryout Asian street food, Roots serves up a more traditional, sit-down restaurant experience. With Heart & Soy right next door, Roots can take full advantage of “Kentucky’s only tofu manufacturing machine” (imported from Taiwan) for its recipes as well. But the tofu machine is not all Roots and Heart and Soy share. They have a common philosophy dedicated to vegetarianism, health, and community awareness. The menus and atmospheres of the neighboring restaurants are decidedly different, with Roots offering tapas-style servings in a beautifully appointed dining room grounded in neutral colors with bright oversized photos of root vegetables lining the walls, an unusual sunken dining area, and traditional wood tables and chairs.
Most of the menu at Roots consists of shareable but elegant small plate dishes, accented in Asian and internationally inspired. In addition to more familiar Asian soups such as wonton and ramen, Roots has an outstanding traditional Vietnamese Pho and an increasingly popular Thai Green Curry Soup. There are also plenty of salads to choose from, including a Green Papaya Salad, Glass Noodles, and a vegan gluten-free Thai Salad. The “Savories” (shared plates) include simpler dishes such as Steamed Edamame and various Crispy Rolls and are rounded out with the likes of Pan-Fried Potstickers, Vietnamese Crepes, Lettuce Wraps, and Orange Tofu reminiscent of Orange or Sweet and Sour Chicken. Some of the more intriguing Savories are the Crispy Potato Nest, Tofu Clay Pot, and Forbidden Rice Risotto with Baby Spinach, Black Cherries, Candied Walnuts, and Goat Cheese.
Guests will not miss the meat, nor the alcohol. The flavors of the food are so lively, some subtle, some intense. With Roots’ location on Bardstown Road, a bundled-up stroll to another establishment for a nightcap might be a lovely way to end the evening. But before you go, be advised that the desserts receive rave reviews of their own. And the extensive loose leaf tea offerings are fun to explore. There are Darjeelings from India, Oolongs from China and Taiwan, Japanese Green Teas, Chinese White Teas, fermented Pu-Erhs, African Rooibos, blended and herbal teas, and many more to warm you body and soul.
As with all CoCo’s ventures, Roots gives back with its own donations to various charities and special events for customers, such as free vegetarian meals on Thanksgiving Eve with any customer donations going to charity and Chinese New Year dinners during which customers receive red envelopes (signifying good fortune) with a little cash or a lottery ticket inside. CoCo loves this country and this city. Her customers become good friends to her. She mentors aspiring restaurateurs, including some of her own nieces and nephews, and continues to support the local Vietnamese community and the entire community at large. She says she “can never say thank you enough” for all the welcoming and help she received here so many years ago.