TROY, N.Y. — Back in February, Quang’s Vietnamese Bistro was named 2019 Business of the Year at the city’s annual Sammy Awards. The recognition was just the tip of the iceberg for owner Quang Tran and the remarkable story behind his road to success.
Born in San Francisco, Tran grew up fascinated by food – but wasn’t allowed to really get involved with it. In his traditional, patriarchal Asian family, cooking was a job for the women. It didn’t stop his interest, though, especially when he started watching the 80’s sitcom “Three’s Company.” On the show, the character Jack has a restaurant called “Jack’s Bistro.” Tran was inspired by the image of a successful restaurant run by a man.
To appease his parents, Tran went to college at UCLA Berkeley, getting a degree in architecture. He paid for his schooling by working in the restaurant industry. It was there that he started learning everything about fine dining in Michelin-starred restaurants.
After college, he stayed in the restaurant industry, learning as much as he could from the chefs he was working under. He would go home at night and practice what he had learned during the day, inviting his friends over to host dinner parties so he could put his skills to work.
As a throwback to the TV show that sparked his inspiration, he started calling his apartment “Quang’s Bistro.”
A few years ago, his then-wife, originally from Loudonville, informed Tran that her grandmother’s health was declining. She wanted to go back east to be with her. Tran agreed to move to upstate New York with her, “just for two years.”
Tran had a well-established reputation in San Francisco’s restaurant industry, and he didn’t want to leave that behind permanently. However, like so many other business owners who started out elsewhere and moved to the Capital Region, he fell in love with Troy.
“I love the vibe of the city, and the architecture,” he said. “There’s no traffic [compared to the Bay Area], and everyone knows your name. I’d never experienced that before.”
When Tran’s marriage ended in an amicable divorce and there was nothing stopping him from moving back west, he realized he didn’t want to go back.
He started working at Peck’s Arcade and developed a reputation as a good server. Customers would request him specifically. When he decided to open his own storefront, his regulars followed him and gave him his startup customer base.
Tran’s original idea for his restaurant was a Vietnamese sandwich shop. One of the first things he realized when he moved to Troy was that there were no Vietnamese restaurants. He would be setting the standards for the cuisine.
Things didn’t go quite according to plan at first. When he opened his doors on 3rd Street, it was as a pho (pronounced “fuh”) shop, serving up boiling hot Vietnamese noodle soup. Since this happened in the winter of 2019, business was good.
“It was a big hit,” Tran recalled. “In the winter, everyone wants noodle soup. Then summer came, and soup wasn’t a big seller anymore, so I was able to do sandwiches – and they were a big hit too. Right now the sandwiches and the vermicelli bowls are the biggest sellers.”
Tran says the first six months were a huge learning experience. There was a lot of learning as he went, a lot of obstacles, and a lot of stress. But, he had his family’s support. They came out to visit when the shop first opened, and both parents gave him “two thumbs up.”
Tran powered through the negative experiences and focused on the positive ones. Using a combination of yoga, meditation, and motivational speeches on YouTube, he built up a strong, motivated mindset that he has maintained to this day.
When the pandemic hit, Tran’s staff quit. Refusing to close his doors, he shifted gears and started running the whole shop by himself. He developed a system for balancing the flow of orders that came in, allowing him to maintain the quality of his food.
“I’ve got a lower intake now, but because I don’t have to pay for anyone’s labor, I’m actually making higher profits,” Tran explained. “The pandemic has been both a curse and a blessing. Everything is on me now. I don’t have to rely on others. It’s blossomed into something beautiful.”
Hesitant at first to even consider doing takeout, because he didn’t want to get pigeonholed into an “Asian takeout” stereotype, Tran currently runs his shop exclusively as a takeout business. He doesn’t intend to stop until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19 readily available.
“I’m really enjoying the ‘one-man show’ setup,” Tran admitted. “You never know what you’re capable of until you’re backed into a corner. I’m making it happen and still smiling. It’s nice to know that my dream is still continuing.”
Tran’s menu is short and concise, what he describes as “the all-star cast of Vietnamese cuisine.” The small menu allows him to apply his refined, Michelin star training to every dish he prepares.
He also puts lots of heart and soul into his food. Besides fresh produce and unique sauces, love is one of the key features of great Vietnamese cuisine.
“You can Google the recipes, but nothing tastes the same as grandma making it,” Tran explained. “I try to source local ingredients whenever possible. I get my bread from Bella Napoli, baked fresh daily, and I get a lot of herbs from my friends’ farms and gardens. I try to pace cooking times so that the food is done as soon as customers arrive to pick it up.”
Tran will even go so far as to provide instructions for how to reheat pho broth and how to combine all the ingredients on a plate when eating. His customers love the extra level of attention.
During the Black Lives Matter protests, Tran didn’t board up his windows. He hung a professionally-made BLM sign at the front of his shop and encouraged his kids to make signs of their own, hoping to send a message of “love, not fear.”
Tran lives by his motto of “keep hope alive, work hard, and keep a smile on your face.” It continues to amuse him that he is living an opposite sort of life from what most Asian refugee families go through.
“A lot of refugees will open a restaurant because cooking the food of their people is all they know how to do,” he said. “Then they force their kids to go to university so they will never have to do that. I went to a prestigious university, and then I opened a restaurant!”
Tran says he’s working harder than he ever has before, but he doesn’t mind because it’s on his own terms.
“It’s just me, so it’s really not a mom-and-pop place – it’s a pop shop!” he said with a laugh. “But it’s great. I close when I want to, if things are getting crazy I just stop taking orders for a while. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last year and a half. I’m excited to be alive every morning, and I’m trying hard to pass that onto my kids. You have to live life to the fullest. Every minute counts.”
Quang’s Vietnamese Bistro is located at 88 3rd St. Hours are Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Sundays 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. To place a takeout order, call (510) 301-1757, or order through GrubHub or DoorDash.