When the woman at the Small Business Administration discovered that 25-year old Tee Tran wanted a loan to open a Vietnamese restaurant even though he had absolutely no experience in the food business, she laughed at him. “You’re kidding me, right? Do you know your chances of getting a business loan,” she asked rhetorically. “It’s zero! Don’t even think about it.” Rather than discourage him, those cutting remarks inspired Tran to prove her wrong.
Monster Pho, his often-mobbed, year-old Oakland restaurant is a testament to Tran’s tenacity. At lunchtime, the airy dining room is buzzing with banter and tables are filled with a blue-green sea of scrubs, sported by numerous Kaiser Medical Center employees. It’s not just proximity that repeatedly brings Kaiser folks, Cal students and locals alike to the restaurant with the cute monster logo, but gracious service and dependably fresh, traditional Vietnamese cooking. Hearty bowls of pho soup, vermicelli noodle plates, crispy imperial rolls, Vietnamese crepes and banh mi sandwiches are served in an inviting, light-filled room. Unfailingly polite, Tran treats both his customers and employees like family.
Opening a successful restaurant is not the first time this family has beaten the odds. When he was a toddler, Tran, his parents and two older brothers escaped from Vietnam in 1989 as “boat people.” After spending two long years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, they landed in Oakland–with literally nothing. He remembers the five of them sleeping huddled together for warmth on their bare living room floor.
Tran’s mother, Tina Le, has always been his hero, mentor and inspiration. “She worked four jobs to keep the family afloat [as a dishwasher, babysitter, caregiver and seamstress]. She never took ‘failure’ as an answer,” says Tran. Part of his motivation to open a restaurant was to honor his mother and make sure he could take care of her, the way she had taken care of the family. Ironically, his devotion to the family recipes resulted in Le’s insistence on working in his kitchen daily to prepare her sauces.
Tran, now 31, has been an ingenious entrepreneur since the age of eight, when he borrowed money from his mother to purchase candy bars, which he then went door to door and sold for double what he paid. The whole family worked together on paper routes and sewing upholstery samples to earn money for the household. Tran also learned from his mother that no matter the difficulties thrown in one’s path, one should still treat others with respect and kindness.
The Monster in his restaurant’s name stemmed from Tran’s desire to be different and appeal to kids. Its family-friendly atmosphere includes crayons and coloring book pages to keep little diners busy; plus scissors and small bowls are provided so parents can cut up noodles and pieces of meat into kid-sized bites–in the traditional way. Tran has also made his restaurant 100% peanut-free, an unusual move for a Vietnamese restaurant–where peanuts are regularly ground into sauces or crushed and sprinkled over dishes for texture–but one that has parents of children with peanut allergies cheering. Tran aims to cater to a range of diners, so his Vegetable Pho uses a 100% vegetarian broth and his Chicken Pho is made with a chicken broth (without beef).
Using her son as an interpreter, Tina Le explains shyly that growing up in Vietnam she was the second oldest of 10 children and helped take care of her siblings. Those duties, plus the fact that her family moved many times, prevented her from regularly attending school. The reason she wanted to bring her family to the U.S. was so that they could get the education she didn’t.
Monster Pho’s menu is simple and straightforward. “Everything is as Mom and Grandma made it,” says Tran. “If you start playing around with fusion, stuffing the spring rolls with all kinds of things, you lose where you came from.”
“In Vietnamese culture,” Tran says, “you don’t throw anything away; you use every part of the cow and the chicken.” For the regular soup broth, he daily simmers 100 pounds of beef bones in a 160-quart pot with onions and spices such as star anise, coriander and ginger. Tran admits they are always fine-tuning the broth. After months of trial and error, they also came up with a version of kelly-green pandan waffles, a popular Vietnamese street food, usually eaten plain. But Tran tops his decadent dessert waffle with ice cream and whipped cream.
Prior to opening Monster Pho, Tran worked for seven years at an auto dealership, that’s coincidentally just down the street. His deeply held feelings about honesty and integrity didn’t exactly match up with the standard operating procedure for car dealers. Tran stubbornly followed his own internal compass, but found out that his fellow car salesmen had a wager going, on how soon he would be fired or quit. “That lit a fire under me,” says Tran “and in my third month, I sold so many cars I almost made ‘Salesman of the Month.’” Although Tran did well selling cars, he knew his future lay elsewhere.
While working at the dealership, he kept a notebook of possible ideas for businesses. After he finally decided to open a Vietnamese restaurant, he scouted around the Bay Area for a good location and was surprised to see a For Rent sign in a print shop, down the block from the car dealership. When he approached the landlords with his plan, however, they thought he was joking or crazy. “They brushed me off, but that’s always something that motivates me,” says Tran, smiling. “If people tell me I can’t do something, then I have to do it. Six months later, he came back and the storefront was still available.
Now, Tee Tran’s restaurant is a monster hit. He happily greets his loyal customers and oversees the dining room. At Monster Pho, there is often a waiting list to be seated. Oh, and that woman from the Small Business Association who was so discouraging, Tran would like to find her again – to thank her.
A version of this article originally appeared on KQED.org 8/31/15
3905 Broadway, Oakland [Map]
Hours: Wed-Mon 11am-9pm, Closed Tuesday
Facebook: Monster Pho
Price Range: $ (entrees $9-$13)