After 30 years, what’s next for Vegi Food on Vine Street?

Kim Phuong and My Chan, who run Vegi Food, may need to find a new home for their Chinese cooking after 30 years. Photo: Sarah Henry

My Chan and her husband Kim Phuong have been cooking Chinese vegetarian dishes to a loyal clientele in the small, unassuming Vegi Food in North Berkeley for 28 years. But that may be about to change.

Recently, the building housing the restaurant at 2085 Vine Street (between Henry Street and Shattuck Avenue) changed hands. Chan and Phuong, who rent on a month-to-month basis, are concerned that the new owner is looking to lease the space in this locale on the edge of the Gourmet Ghetto to prospective tenants who have more cash to invest in the restaurant-retail space than they do.

Make no mistake, there’s nothing fancy pants about Vegi Food, a no-frills, hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop shop with a drab exterior and a dining area begging for a makeover. It’s the kind of place that many local eaters likely pass by without notice on their way to the Cheese Board, Off the Grid, or the farmers’ market — let alone high-end joints like Chez Panisse. But it gets high marks from its regulars — many of whom have come for decades — for its inexpensive, healthy chow miens, stir fries, and soups, which feature loads of vegetables and bean curd, and avoid garlic, onion, MSG, eggs, and meat.

It also gets praise for its friendly atmosphere and homey feel: Chan asks about customers’ families and health, remembers regular orders, and accommodates diners’ dietary needs and preferences.

“We’ve been eating at Vegi Food since the early 1980s and go about once a week,” said regular customer Bob Levin. “We like the freshness of the food and the way it’s prepared. We order the mu shu, hot braised bean curd, sweet and sour walnuts, sizzling rice soup, and something called ‘the special,’ which we saw My serve to people from the Cheese Board who had concocted it.”

Vegetables get a starring role on the menu at Vegi Food. Photo: Courtesy Yelp

Understandably, Phuong and Chan are anxious about what the future holds. These immigrants from Vietnam with a Chinese background have put four children through college while running the restaurant, which is open seven days a week. For the couple, who are in their 50s and live in Richmond Annex, it’s the only work they’ve known. Prior to taking over the business almost three decades ago they worked for the previous owner of the restaurant.

Friends are trying to help them find an alternative location, should that prove necessary, but most similar-sized restaurant spaces are beyond their means, Chan told Berkeleyside. “I’ve showed them some potential storefronts in the area but so far there hasn’t been a place that might work that they can afford,” said Karen Nelsen, a realtor who primarily works with residential properties who is helping the couple in their search for an alternative location.

Theirs is a classic immigrant success story: After arriving as refugees they carved out a life in a foreign land through hard work, long hours, and personal sacrifice. Business has been down in recent years, they said, but the couple assumed they’d keep cooking from their current location as long as their customers kept coming. Chan has looked for alternative employment, but doesn’t like her chances of finding a job, as an older worker with limited English skills. “We don’t know what’s going to happen or what we’ll do,” she said.

Vegi Food: Restaurant space may soon get a major makeover — and new tenants.

The property is now owned by Ito Ripsteen (given name Ryan) who is also the leasing agent for the space with Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services. The 1950 building, which includes an upstairs apartment on a 4,200 square foot lot, was sold May 25th for $880,000.

In addition to that real estate maxim — location, location, location — the site listing for the space includes features such as “building undergoing major remodel, including new roof, paint, seismic upgrade, storefront upgrade” and “coveted restaurant zoning permit in place…in a neighborhood with quota restrictions.”

The seismic upgrade is pending city approval and will likely require that the restaurant couple relocate, said Ripsteen, who expects that work to begin within the next couple of months. He also said that he is open to considering all opportunities in terms of leasing the space and added that he is on good terms with the current tenants.

Phuong and Chan know the building needs long overdue maintenance and improvements. They’d also like to stay. What’s not certain: the fate of Vegi Food. “This is a unique place — I’ve been eating here once or twice a week for 35 years, before Kim and My took over the business from the original owner,” said Eric King. “If they can’t stay, there are many customers who hope they find a place nearby to cook their food.”

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Shop Talk: The ins and outs of Berkeley businesses [05.15.12]

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  • David D.

    Interesting write-up. I’ve passed by the extremely drab exterior regularly since moving to Berkeley several years ago, and even though I’m vegetarian, I’ve never felt the urge to try it out. Maybe one day…

  • Bryan Garcia

    I’m a vegan and I’ve lived in Berkeley since 2008 (and visited often for two more years prior to that). You’d think I’d be the perfect market for this place, but I’ve only patronized it once. I just remember everything we ordered being incredibly bland. That must have been about five years ago now, and I’ve never felt compelled to go back. I’ve wondered at times how it has managed to survive as long as it has. Anyways, I am not meaning to kick Vegi Food while they are down, but I just wanted to share my experience.

    Also, I’m not a restauranteur, but having a month-to-month lease doesn’t sound like a good idea for a business. I could be wrong, though.

  • Anonymous

    This is a neighborhood treasure! I’ve eaten there many many times, as well as ordered food for takeout. It is simple tasty food that doesn’t overpower with flavors. I personally think that it fits in very well with the character of the neighborhood. Doesn’t rent control protect this wonderful neighborhood business? It makes no sense to kick them out. 

    With this place, vegetarians have three excellent places to eat in the gourmet ghetto: Cafe Gratitude (very tasty raw food, but quite pricey), Cha Ya (incredibly tasty vegetarian Japanese food, but also pricey), and Vegi Food (tasty Chinese food, and inexpensive). Obviously, there is enough business to support Vegi Food if they’ve been running for almost 30 years and have been able to put their kids through college. Why mess with it? Surely there must be a way to amortize the repair costs over the lifetime of the building so that they aren’t unaffordable.

  • Irisandjules

    Reading the good reviews I drove *all the way up there* from West Berkeley to pick up 4 different dishes. The place itself turned me off somewhat – but I hoped the food would be really good. It was not bad but not exciting – not worth driving there again. However, if they moved to the nouveau food mecca “The Left Bank aka West Berkeley” I would might reconsider.

  • Guest

    These two people are fabulous.

  • Ormond Otvos

    Used to live next door, ate there often. The food is excellent, fresh, piping hot, interesting. The sizzling dishes are exceptional. Of course, not being heavy on fat and meat, you’re hungry again an hour later, but the prices are very reasonable. Bring your own garlic, tho…

  • sydthekyd

    Yes, if necessary, how about considering the storefront between the new Kabana location and Wells Fargo on University right below San Pablo, please?

  • Souders Sean

    Why would they avoid cooking with onions and garlic?

  • Leftbanker

    There’s an empty storefront at the corner of Dwight and San Pablo, former home of Bacheeso’s. Out of their price range? We’d welcome an affordable, tasty restaurant. 

  • asma maryam

    There seems to be some activity in that space, albeit slow activity. I wonder if anything is planned there already?

  • Joe

    Their food is authentic and good considering it’s vegan and they are not using any of the main taste boosters in Chinese cuisine (i.e. garlic, onions and MSG).  I like their food much better than the expensive vegan restaurants around town, which I think are either too simple (I can saute some kale myself thank you very much) or too crazy (this is supposed to be what?)  I hope that they’ll be able to either stay after the remodeling or find a place that’s better looking.  I think that a nicer looking place will bring them more business.

  • Joe

     I meant to say better than some of the expensive vegan restaurants, not all.

  • Joe

     This is just a guess, if they are Buddhists… an excerpt from wikipedia: “Some Mahayana Buddhists in China, Japan and Vietnam specifically avoid eating strong-smelling plants, traditionally garlic, Allium chinense, asafoetida, shallot, and mountain leek, and refer to these as wǔ hūn (五荤, or ‘Five Acrid and Strong-smelling Vegetables’) or wǔ xīn (五辛 or ‘Five Spices’) as they tend to excite senses.”

  • Joe

     Chances are they are month-to-month because their lease ended and the owner of the building was selling and didn’t offer them another long-term lease.  Also don’t hate me for saying this but, I have noticed there are a lot of vegetarian foods that are over-processed and over-seasoned, perhaps to “make up” for the flavors otherwise provided by meat.   In those cases vegetarian cuisine does not mean healthy cuisine.

  • Mein Stein

    There is no commercial rent control in Berkeley. Good luck to the new owners in creating something wonderful in that space.

  • Cammy

    I’ve avoided this place because the storefront has zero “curb appeal.” I know that shouldn’t define an eating establishment, but it looks like one of those places that I’d avoid.

  • aperson

    I’ve lived in Berkeley my whole life and have tried every single Chinese restaurant in town multiple times. I’m also a vegetarian.

    As much as it pains me to say this, but the quality at Vegi Food has seriously dropped off in recent years. It USED to have freshly made Buddhist-style bland vegetarian cuisine, but over the last five years or so I’ve watched the quality of the vegetables drop off, and have noticed frozen vegetables being used sometimes, to my dismay. They also seem to have lost the knack for making noodles and rice decently and consistently — too often overcooked now.

    This is a tragedy because Vegi Food is in the PERFECT location serving the PERFECT style of food in a GREAT price range. It really ought to be a wild success story, but the reason that business has dropped off in recent years is entirely due to the decline in quality, not a decline in “curb appeal” or whatever. “Downscale” is all the rage now — people flock to intentionally chintzy-looking food carts and taco trucks, for crying out loud.

    It’s a double tragedy because Vegi Food is just about the last remaining non-overpriced restaurant on North Shattuck. For people who live to the north who don’t want to drop a pretty penny on overpriced food, but are disappointed in what Vegi Food has become, we have to now troop all the way down to “south Gourmet Ghetto” — i.e. the Delaware-University range — to get affordable restaurant food.

    Here’s my dream:

    That Vegi Food drop the Buddhist hardcore rules, start using garlic and onions and more Hunan-y/Szechuan-y flavors; revert to using only fresh vegetables; take a refresher course in Noodles 101; and stay in the same building.

    But if they are forced out by the new owner, then I hope a new Chinese restaurant that fulfills my dream and STAYS AFFORDABLE moves into the space.

    This location is a potential goldmine. People from all over the world flock to that exact corner, looking for food. If Vegi Food catered more to the tastes of 21st century vegetarians, who no longer seek blandness for blandness’ sake, then the owners could be raking in a fortune and afford to stay there.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I notice that Peking Express on Center St just west of Shattuck has also closed.  They have a sign up saying they are moving to Durant just above Telegraph.

  • Mein Stein

    “This location is a potential gold mine.”

    Exactly. I hope the new owners are able to optimize their opportunity within the current zoning. In the same way which Cesar’s (formerly Apple Cleaners), Gregoire’s (formerly a flower shop) and Cheese Board’s pizza addition (formerly a neighborhood hardware store) replaced an older business and brought new life and excitement to the area.

  • aperson

    Yeah, but…Cesar’s, Gregoire’s (especially) and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Cheese Board’s Pizza are overpriced, like so much else in the Gourmet Ghetto. We don’t need another expensive place, we need an affordable “neighborhood” restaurant.

  • Charles_Siegel

    If you have to go as far as Delaware St., it won’t kill you.

  • Mein Stein

    The patrons will price whatever is sold there exactly right.

  • Annie Painter

    Yikes, aperson, I don’t think $2.75 for a generous slice-plus-sliver of pizza is an expensive lunch.

  • Annie Painter

    I hope I am reading this wrong…is the new owner affiliated with Gordon Real Estate? Are we going to see ANOTHER empty commercial storefront with a Gordon sign in the window, waiting for the “right” tenant to pay their exorbitant asking rental price?

  • Caroyln

    I SURE HOPE A NEW LOCATION IS FOUND FOR MY AND KIM. OUR FAMILY HAS GROWN UP HERE AND THEY Are family now. Anything we can do to help, just ask!!

  • guest

    $20 for a medium-sized take-out pizza is a bit much

  • guest

    i see those signs in almost every empty storefront in berkeley.
    how much of the city do they own?

  • Bryan Garcia

    Well, to start, not every vegetarian/vegan chooses that diet or lifestyle for health reasons, myself included. I try to watch my health as much as the next guy, but I don’t shy away from refined sugar, white flour, fried foods, MSG, etc.

    Secondly, I eat a minimal amount of processed foods. I cook (vegan) dinner from scratch almost every night, and it never comes out bland.

    I think the main reason Vegi Food’s dishes are so bland is because they don’t use onions or garlic. Those are pretty key in developing flavors in vegetarian cuisine.

  • Chris

    Me too!   That whole building is poorly maintained though. It’s clear from the rest of the spaces on that intersection that a properly outfitted commercial space would do well there.

  • Mein Stein

    This is not a new phenomenon, google: ‘free enterprise’. It’s our economic system.

  • Mein Stein

    Then you’re shopping in the wrong neighborhood.

  • Eric King

    After thinking about the Vegi-Food situation for a while, it occurred to me that the new owners could take a different line toward regaining their investment. Instead of renovating the entire building at very high cost, and then being forced to wait a long time to find a suitable tenant who would pay a high rent, they could simply do the limited repairs necessary to make the upstairs apartment livable and rent that, too. In this scenario My and Kim could stay in the downstairs for something close to their current rent. The combined rents of Vegi-Food plus the rent of a family upstairs might be enough to satisfy the new owner’s need for reasonable profit. All the upstairs apartment really needs is a new exterior staircase to the back entrance and a new roof.

  • Mein Stein

    Musing on what might be a better solution (for Vegi-Food or anything else) is a time honored Berkeley tradition, which of late seems to focus more and more on keeping things the same, rather than changing them. Here’s a couple of possible explanations:

    –  Berkeley’s preservationist mania has more in common with reality TV’s ‘hoarder’s’  syndrome than historic assets. Perhaps keeping every bit of civic ephemera can forestall time; We’re not old, everything is still here. It worked for Miss Havisham.

    – ‘Shabby chic’ has always been a refuge for Berkeley’s large “Should’a, Would’a, Could’a” class. Rent control, an old tweed jacket, a few books and a beat up bike can transform “low income” into a nicely romantic “life of the mind”…until it’s your turn to stand for a round of mojitos at Cesar’s. You need bank to play in the new Berkeley.

  • Anonymous

    If only it were that simple. Rents are inflated through paybacks to existing tenants (e.g., I charge you N dollars per square foot, then give you back N-c where c is sufficiently large to make rent realistic and I get to claim the market rate is N), units are intentionally kept empty in order to use the inflated rental rate as a tax sink, and a whole bunch of other flim-flam that I don’t even know about. There’s no need to believe some anonymous person on the internet, call around and get some of rates on the chronically vacant places around town.  You’ll get quotes that are up there with the SF financial district, Embarcadero Center, etc.  A commercial realtor explained to this me when I asked her why I couldn’t find any office space for my company to expand in Berkeley so we ended up renting for less right next to the Transamerica building.

  • Anonymous

     Yeah, that’s probably it. There are similar notions in Indian cooking. Certain flavors (*rimshot*) of Hinduism discourage eating onions and garlic…depending on who you ask it’s because they don’t want to excite their senses or (the explanation I grew up with) since garlic and onions are heavily associated with cooking meat they don’t want their neighbors to think that’s what they are doing.

  • Judy B.

    The food at Vegi Food is fabulously delicious.  The statements at the beginning of this list are so strange–obviously by people who don’t patronize the restaurant and don’t know much of anything about it. 

    Here are my favorites:  Soy Bean Sheets and Greens, Shredded Vegetable Chow Mein, Sweet and Sour Walnuts, Pineapple Fried Rice, Cabbage with Black Mushrooms, Fried Won Ton, Lo Hon Chow Mein.  The pan friend noodles for the chow mein dishes are superb.  You can order the noodles and put any of the other vegetable dishes over them–for example, Cabbage with Black Mushrooms.  Btw, the cabbage dish is listed as spicy, but Kim will make it not spicy if you ask (which I do).  They serve a lunch special during the week that includes soup and two fried wontons with every entree.

    I eat at Vegi Food frequently–often multiple times in a week.  The food is not bland.  It is absolutely delicious, cooked to perfection. 

    I will be heartbroken if it closes.  

  • Albany Annie

    I love this place with its simple and delicious food and quick and friendly service.  I hope they can stay or find another location in the area.  We have seen far too many local businesses have to move or shut down, with their old locations sitting empty for years afterwards.  I wonder if there are perverse incentives build into the tax system that lead to this all-too-common scenario. 

  • Chrisjuricich

    Ive eaten there once or twice and recall that garlic and onions were eschewed. I recall their sweet walnuts were delicious–but for whatever reasons, we haven’t eaten there in years.

    It is the odd restaurant out, considering all the fancy pants restaurants in the area.

    Speaking of which, I’ll have to try cheeseboard pizza one more time. Last time it was a soggy, drippy unbaked mess.

  • PositiveThinking

     Berkeley, the most negative place on earth.

    Come here to enjoy our sarcastic, embittered, negative commenters.

  • DC

    We lived in the East Bay for many years and ate at Vegi Foods at least once a week.  Even after we moved to the Central Valley, we still made it a point to have a meal at VF whenever we were in Berkeley.  Last Saturday we found out this awful news.  I’m totally heartbroken that one of my favorite restaurants is closing.  It’s one of the last holdouts.  It’s unpretentious.  The food is and has always been without fail, delicious and healthy.  I’ve never had a bad meal there.  I never could understand why some people think the food is bland.  For a menu that doesn’t include garlic or onions, the dishes are always infused with fresh, clean flavors like spicy ginger or pungent, salty black bean.  The chowmein noodles are always perfectly crisp around the edges and never too soft under the blanketing of steamed vegetables.  And the potstickers…I could go on and on but it’s to no avail.  There’s nothing wrong with keeping the tried and true.  It’s great to have new and exciting places to go, but when you are in the mood for delicious comfort food in a quiet, peaceful setting  you can’t beat Vegi Foods.  My and Kim and their restaurant will be very much missed. 

  • Behnamdan

    We are all devastated, by the news of Vegi food being forced to move. Its truly one of Berkeley treasures. We always bring folks visiting us to this place. Its way ahead of its time.
    If the person/people who purchased this building have any sense/value or feel for Berkeley, they should do all they can to keep Mi and her husband in this place. We will remember this gesture for years to come.

  • Kaye

    Are you an investor or realtor, by any chance? You seem quite anxious to chase folks with “a few books, a tweed jacket, and an old bike” out of the high-priced N. Berkeley entirely. The effrontery of them, not wearing designer clothes, using a bike that costs less than $800, and pretending they can enjoy N. Berkeley just as much as someone with money! And as for that little low-priced vegetarian restaurant dragging down the neighborhood when a new trendy place can move in and charge $15 for three prawns artfully arranged on a plate, well, that just won’t do, will it? Who needs hardware stores or affordable restaurants when you can create something wonderful (read: pricey, snooty) in that space…