That was six months ago—and just before the coronavirus pandemic upended the restaurant business. “It caused a lot of trouble,” Tran said with a laugh.
However, on a recent Wednesday afternoon—a traditionally slow time between lunch and dinner for restaurants—a steady stream of phone calls and customers coming in for takeout indicated that one of Cedar Park’s oldest Chinese restaurant is not going anywhere. Laney Vo, who opened Hunan Chef with her father and uncle in 2003, still works as a partner with Tran, who has been friends with her family for nearly 20 years. Tran said he helped Vo’s father, Loi, at the original Wanfu Restaurant in South Austin.
“We are old friends,” Tran said.
Born in Vietnam, Tran said he fled the communist country in 1981 and lived in refugee camps in Malaysia, Easter Island and the Philippines before coming to the U.S. in 1982. He lived in Oakland, California, and started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher before being promoted to cook.
He moved to Austin in 1984 and has been cooking ever since. He has experience cooking Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese cuisine. He has also owned several restaurants in the Austin area, including a Vietnamese pho restaurant and two Japanese restaurants.
“In 30 years, I learned to cook a lot of different ones,” he said.
Tran now only owns Hunan Chef. The restaurant specializes in Hunan cuisine, which is named for a region in China and known for its spicy flavor.
Chicken broccoli, sesame chicken, orange chicken and shrimp are popular dishes. Lo mein and fried rice are also big sellers, Tran said.
Tran said he can make the dishes milder for those who do not like spicy meals.
Tran, who does all the cooking at Hunan Chef, said the cozy restaurant in the Bell Boulevard Town Center can accommodate 40 diners but will continue to offer takeout and delivery only. The restaurant may open to dine-in seating later in the summer, he said.
“We don’t want to rush it,” he said.