Chef Paulette Tran brings her farmers’ market pop-up to Fruitvale
Before she opened 3 Bottled Fish last month in Fruitvale, Paulette Tran operated her Vietnamese pop-up at the San Francisco Stonestown Farmers Market for a decade. When the chef initially applied to farmers’ markets, Stonestown was the first one to offer her an opportunity to join. “I knew the area really well because I went to school at San Francisco State,” Tran said during a phone interview. “I like the market because it’s not touristy and it serves such a diverse community.”
Tran is an East Bay resident who feels the same way about Fruitvale. Her cafe is on 35th Avenue just around the corner from Foothill Boulevard. “There’s not a lot of foot traffic, except from people who actually live or go to school in the area,” she said. Her weekday customers are typically folks from the neighborhood, but 3 Bottled Fish has also retained regulars from her many years at the farmers’ market and attracted some new converts who read about the opening.
3 Bottled Fish began as a side job for Tran while she was involved with youth empowerment and social justice work. “And then I got burnt out on it and I just wanted to make a change,” she said. “This [cooking] is something that I’ve always felt really passionate about and connected to.”
But there was a point during the pandemic when she questioned whether the pop-up was sustainable. Her team took a break for about six months to stay safe, and then they regrouped. “When we went back to the market, there was such a huge calling,” Tran said. “Folks missed us and we missed the community.”
After the hiatus, 3 Bottled Fish began selling out before the market ended. Tran said it felt good to be back. Then Paula Ocheltree, the owner of Orbit Coffee, introduced herself to Tran at the farmers’ market. They soon developed a professional relationship, which included some catering gigs. Appreciative of Tran’s passionate approach to food, Ocheltree offered her the Orbit Coffee retail space on 35th Avenue.
When I first reached out to Tran to ask about 3 Bottled Fish, she explained that on Wednesdays and Thursdays she serves a cafe menu with a pork bun dish ($14), a chicken banh mi ($12) and her celebrated farmers porridge ($10)—a beef rice soup with scallions, ginger, fried garlic, sprouts, mint and lemon.
On Fridays she’s been playing with a Happy Hour concept when she serves nhau food. “We’re making dishes that are good to eat while drinking,” she said. Last week she made shrimp toast, sticky-rice cakes with lemongrass riblets and savory coconut cakes that diners wrap in herbs and then dip in sauce.
“They’re little small plates, the kind of food you eat while drinking beer,” Tran said. “That’s how Vietnamese people serve it at home. They have a gathering where people hang out and drink, and then they’ll have that kind of spread.”
Tran grew up living with three generations in the same household—her, her mother and her grandmother. “In Vietnamese culture, a lot of the gathering takes place around family meals,” she said. “Food is always an important way of connecting everybody together.”
Her early childhood memories include growing herbs in the garden and using them in home-cooked meals. “I would just start making things, helping out, and I learned to make sauces by picking up on certain techniques,” she said. But for Tran, home cooking morphed into something she wanted to share with the public.
The origin of her porridge came out of her experience at the farmers’ market. She described it as a “humble, comforting dish” that started at Stonestown. “I recognized that these farmers travel hours from their farms to get to the market,” Tran said. “We felt like we could nourish them.” It’s become a staple on the menu that everyone loves.
Her fish sauce recipe has remained the same for over 30 years. “The first time I ever made it I was nine years old,” Tran said. She hasn’t adjusted or fussed with the recipe or the ingredients. “I always get people asking, ‘How do you make it?’ or ‘Are you going to bottle it?’” Without divulging her technique, the sauce includes the basics—citrus, garlic, chilies, sugar and water. “You’re supposed to find this balance where it’s sour, sweet, savory and spicy all in one,” she said.
3 Bottled Fish, 1924 35th Ave., Oakland. Open Wed, Thur and Sat, 10am to 2pm; Fri 3–7pm. 510.394.4509. instagram.com/3bottledfish