Don’t Box Me In

How health problems, or a neighbor's construction, can imperil a family restaurant.

I don’t believe in critics becoming advocates for restaurants, but two unique family-owned East Bay favorites are in peril, through no fault of their own, and in ways that illustrate the mundane but serious challenges these businesses can face.

Cafe Tibet (2020 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-5553): Lost sight of Berkeley’s only Tibetan restaurant? So has everybody else. According to chef-owner Samten Chinkarlaprang, the five-year-old restaurant hasn’t been visible from the street since August, when Oliver & Company, a Richmond-based contractor, placed a storage box on the street outside her front door. The contractor is working on the Touriel Building at 2004 University.

Although properly permitted, the box — as wide as a parking space, and taller than the storefront — has been there for six months. Oliver & Co. originally told Chinkarlaprang it would be there for two to three weeks. In the meantime, she says, Cafe Tibet’s business has dropped precipitously: “Even my regular customers don’t know I’m open.”

Chris Ingenito of Oliver & Co. says the company has bought Cafe Tibet a sign to post on the box announcing that the cafe behind it was open, and predicts that the contents of the box will be moved indoors by March 6, weather permitting. That’s three weeks later than the last estimate Chinkarlaprang quoted me.

The restaurant owner has neither sought nor received financial compensation for six months’ worth of lost business. But “if they do not move this box in another two or three months, I will have to close my restaurant,” she says. Several hundred customers, Chinkarlaprang adds, have signed a petition to the city’s zoning department asking that the box be moved. But it’s the bucks that count.

May Hong (417 7th Street at Broadway, Oakland, 510-268-9099) Recently I received an e-mail from an old friend of the family that owns May Hong in Oakland’s Chinatown — one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the East Bay — informing me about that the restaurant is struggling with a series of crises: Family matriarch Tram Tran has been battling terminal cancer for a year or so. And her husband, Chu Tran, who’d been suffering from poor health, died unexpectedly in early February. The restaurant closed.

But not forever. The Trans’ twenty-year-old daughter, Hoa, decided to step into her parents’ shoes, and reopened the restaurant February 20. For the moment, Hoa’s mother and her teenage brother, David, are doing what they can to help. Equally important, the cook responsible for executing Chef Chu’s specialties, such as the tamarind-dusted shrimp and sweet-and-sour catfish claypot, is staying on. According to the Tran family friend, there’s a Vietnamese saying to describe Hoa’s decision: “When the heavens call you, you say yes.”

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