Truly a family affair, Bobby Phong inherited Phở Xe Lua from his uncle and aunt, Charlie and Michelle Phong. His father and mother, Michael and Anh Phong, were the guiding lights when the restaurant opened in 2007. Bobby has helped his family in other restaurants ventures over the last 40 years starting out as a dishwasher. He shared in the many responsibilities when opening Phở Xe Lua including serving and cooking.
“When you own a business, you do everything from A to Z so I’m very hands-on,” said Bobby.
In July 2019, Bobby took over Phở Xe Lua and enlisted his wife, Tina. Bobby, the Executive Chef, had cooked his entire life so the transition was seamless for the couple and staff. Yet, they had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead.
When announced in March 2020 that businesses had to shut down due to Covid-19, Tina and Bobby regrouped and decided to sell everything they already had in stock and close operations. By the first weekend, they were so busy with takeout orders that they scrapped that decision and stayed open. When the option to open for in-house dining came around, they kept to takeout only.
"The regulars were so happy we never closed. Fifty percent of our business is still walk-in and phone orders; the rest is 'tablet' online delivery services. Essential workers from the UC Davis Medical Center early-on were so thankful we were open. We should stay open for these people, they need us!” Bobby said.
“We decided not to open in-house dining because we didn’t want to jeopardize the health of our employees or customers. Following all the guidelines were difficult for our type of cuisine due to the number of condiments we provide and the disposable utensil requirement wasn’t feasible. Another concern was the pent-up demand for in-house dining. We would be too busy and that would cause larger numbers of people to congregate. Staying safe is our first priority. We owe it to our family and community,” said the couple.
The downside is that some of the longtime wait-staff had to be furloughed but they were able to keep most of the kitchen staff with fewer hours. They have Door Dash, Postmates, and GrubHub delivery services which allow access to customers during this time. This meant raising prices to compensate for the delivery fees. Thinking creatively, Tina and Bobby started their own website for just pick-up orders; those prices remained the same.
"Because we aren’t serving people in the restaurant we have the time to re-evaluate things we could not have done before. For example, we redesigned the menu and added a staple dish in Vietnamese cuisine – Bún Riêu, crab meatball vermicelli noodle soup. We also created new drinks and purchased a sealing machine to mitigate tampering with delivery drivers."
Tina reflected, "I miss people -- wondering and worrying about what happened to our regular customers -- and the hustle and bustle, but we appreciate the break. Friday through Sunday is still busy but less than what we used to do. We are happy and feel blessed that we still have customers and the support of the community."
Phở Xe Lua is still open for delivery and takeout but has reduced their hours from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Please place your orders by 8:15 p.m. They have been open throughout the Covid-19 crisis for takeout or delivery. They are not offering sit-down dining inside or out yet. The entire staff wears masks and/or face shields along with gloves. They require masks, so please be sure to put one on before entering. They have Plexiglas installed at the register when you pay to pick-up your order.
Side note: Celebrated Sacramento chef and author Mai Pham opened Lemon Grass Restaurant, Sacramento’s first full-service and high-end Vietnamese restaurant in 1989. Born in Vietnam and raised in Thailand, Mai was one of the first authoritative voices behind Vietnamese and Thai food in America, a distinction that grew out of her family exodus from Vietnam and her passion to share that experience through food and culture.
“Stockton Boulevard is so convenient. I used to go to Little Saigon quite a bit when my father was alive. It was a Sunday outing for the family for phở or dim sum,” Mai reminisced. “The name ‘phở xe lua’ is endearing as it means ‘train-size pho,’ a code word to phở connoisseurs.”