Perhaps the old cliché about Greeks running diners is going to be replaced by one about it being the Vietnamese. There's Tam Van Tran, owner of the South Wedge Diner, and my neighbor, Tai Le, manages the Highland Park Diner. Now we have the Central Park Family Diner, which is run by Ben Tran and her family. Does this mean we'll start to see spring rolls, bun, and pho replacing gyro plates and spanikopita at diners everywhere? It's an intriguing thought.
The Central Park Family Diner is in the space that used to be Roger's House. That restaurant, in addition to being a decent diner, was also a Corpus Christi mission staffed by ex-offenders (this is the currently acceptable term for people who've served time in prison). Somehow, I'd gotten the impression that the new place was a soul-food restaurant, but it's mostly a standard diner; breakfast specials, dinner plates, and grilled sandwiches predominate. The seven Vietnamese specials at the bottom of the menu, though, set it a bit apart.
Price is a strong selling point for the Central Park Family Diner. You can get eggs, bacon, home fries, and toast for a paltry $2.29. It's not special, but it's good. Want to splurge? Pancakes, eggs, and sausage is $3.45, and Tran makes the pancake batter herself.
The most you can spend on breakfast is $4.25 for eggs, grits, and toast with either fried fish or meatloaf. Tran says the fish breakfast is one of her most popular. You get two pieces of deep-fried whiting with eggs, toast, and a big old pool of grits. You won't need to eat again soon. Grits, which like cornbread goes equally well with sweet and savory foods, really fills you up and ought to be more popular with you Yankees.
Breakfast sandwiches are also cheap, just $2.25 with bacon, sausage patties, or ham, and $2.49 with two long beef sausages. That's a bit cheaper than at the Public Market, though they'd be better on a good roll than on plain, white toast.
You can't spend much more for lunch. Hamburgers are $1.79, cheeseburgers $1.89. Chicken fillet and fried fish sandwiches are $2.60. Meat loaf with real mashed potatoes and grilled French bread is the most popular dinner ($4.15). I splurged on the pork chop dinner, with two big chops and mashed potatoes smothered in gravy for $5.85. The chops were a bit dry; I'd try something else next time.
With prices like these you might expect the place to be a dive, which the Central Park Family Diner is decidedly not; it's exceptionally clean, bright, and comfortable (it looks like Roger's House with Vietnamese trimmings and a small Buddhist shrine). No problem bringing the whole family.
It's a fairly attractive package, but the addition of the Vietnamese food is the bow on top. Tran makes a couple Vietnamese items a day during the week, and then offers several on the weekend. She didn't have pho the day I came (beef noodle soup, $6), but I'll try again. Rice noodle soup with seafood was great with some Sriracha hot sauce ($5.50). It had a simple broth, squid, and an unidentified but delicious meat product. Rice vermicelli (bun) with pork chop and egg roll was also very good. Dac Hoa's fresh spring rolls still rule, but Tran's are decent and cheap at $2 for two.
Ben Tran worked for years at Donut-n-Diner in the Goodman plaza on North Goodman. Her daughter, Dong Nguyen, who lives in New York City, is actually the owner (Dac Hoa also has an absentee relative owner). When Tran is lucky, her son or daughter shows up to work. On the weekend, her brother and sister-in-law, Tri and Tien Tran, help out, with Tien cooking some of the Vietnamese food. Ben says people are more helpful in Vietnam than they are here, and says she thinks about returning. Perhaps some business success will change her mind. Or is that just my all-too-American attitude?
Central Park Family Diner, 271 Central Park, 546-4420. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Although Boom closed in late May, the space won't remain vacant long. Tony Gullace (chef/owner of Max of Eastman Place) will reopen it this fall. Tony plans to continue cooking at Max while overseeing the new place on Monroe Avenue. Perhaps owning several restaurants, each with a unique style, will become a trend. On Keuka Lake, John Loehnert of Three Birds has purchased the Lakeside a few miles north and turned it into a casual steak and chops restaurant.
The Slow Food Cheese and Wine Tasting will be held Monday, June 9, at Casa Larga Vineyards from 6 to 9 p.m. Sample extraordinary cheeses from the Finger Lakes and around the world, as well as the wines of 10 Finger Lakes wineries. Several restaurants will also serve cheese dishes. Tix: $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Price includes a $5 coupon, so you can bring some cheese home with you. 328-8300.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Tune in Michael on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel (9 a.m. to noon); and on Sundays for antiques and wine (10 a.m. to noon) on WYSL 1040 AM. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.