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.

Pho at Monster Pho.
Pho at Monster Pho. (Anna Mindess)

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 a welcoming, 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.

Tee Tran and mom, Tina Le.
Tee Tran and mom, Tina Le. (Anna Mindess)

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 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.

Monster Pho's spring roll.
Monster Pho’s spring roll. (Anna Mindess)

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 cheeringTran 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.”

Monster Pho's pandan waffle dessert.
Monster Pho’s pandan waffle dessert. (Anna Mindess)

“In Vietnamese culture,” Tran says, “you don’t throw anything away; you use every part of the cow and the chicken.” For the 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 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.

Monster Pho's flan with coffee syrup.
Monster Pho’s flan with coffee syrup. (Anna Mindess)

Now, Tran is riding high. 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.

Monster Pho
3905 Broadway, Oakland [Map]
Ph: 510-788-4459
Hours: Wed-Mon 11am-9pm, Closed Tuesday
Facebook: Monster Pho
Twitter: @MONSTERPHO
Price Range: $ (entrees $9-$13)

Tee Tran’s Monster Pho Conquers Oakland with Traditional Vietnamese Cooking 1 September,2015Anna Mindess

  • anndee

    I love Monster Pho even more now that I know the back story. Great spot. Highly recommend it!

  • William Benjamin Abbott IV

    We must have started going there right when they opened. Everything is great, service is just right. Our usual order is chicken pho, veggie pho with chicken broth, Imperial rolls, crispy tofu, Vietnamese coffee, Thai ice tea, water. Mr. Tran is charming and so are the rest of the staff.

Author

Anna Mindess

My passion is exploring the connection between food and culture. I write regularly for Oakland and Alameda Magazines and Berkeleyside's NOSH. My blog, East Bay Ethnic Eats, gives me an excuse to track down the only Bay Area baker making fresh filo dough or learn to stuff a dried eggplant with help from a Turkish immigrant. Culture is the thread that ties together my several careers. As a sign language interpreter, educator and author, my study of Deaf culture has taken me around the world, where I fell madly in love with seed-strewn Danish bread, attacked platters of French shellfish with a small arsenal of tools and sampled a Japanese breakfast so fresh it wiggled. I'm also an epicurean concierge for Edible Excursions Japan town tours (that I lead in either English or ASL). And when I conduct in-depth cultural trainings for foreign workers being transferred to the Bay Area, I am sure to discuss the delights of doggie bags and the mystery of American restaurants serving ice water in the dead of winter. I can be found tweeting @EBEthniceats

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