Monster Pho founder Tee Tran (center), his mom, Tina Le (left), and one of Monster Pho’s food serving robots (right). Credit: Patricia Chang

Monster Pho
360 40th Street, Oakland

The big-eyed green monster in Monster Pho’s name and logo came from owner Tee Tran’s desire to be different and appeal to kids. Back when it opened on Broadway in 2014, the Vietnamese restaurant’s family-friendly atmosphere included crayons and coloring book pages to keep little diners busy. On Feb. 2, Monster Pho will open in a much larger space, just around the corner, in Oakland’s Temescal District. And its original mascot will morph into a collection of monster-themed amusements to keep kids (and assorted adults) enthralled. 

New additions include a “monster pho(ne)” charging station, a refurbished robot ride from the 80’s and arcade games, like a toy-dispensing claw machine that only works with “monster pho coins,” which are earned by kids who clean their plate (plus get their guardians’ approval). Most notably, this will be the first East Bay restaurant to feature robot servers (more about them in a moment). 

While he delights in creating kid-friendly spaces, Tran, himself, didn’t have the cushiest childhood. In 1989, when he was a toddler, he, his parents and two older brothers escaped from Vietnam as “boat people.” After two years in refugee camps, they arrived in Oakland with nothing. He remembers the five of them sleeping huddled together for warmth on the bare living room floor of their apartment.

Tee Tran tried to make his restaurant a place that would delight kids, with games and goofy monsters peeking out all over. Credit: Patricia Chang

Tran admits he’s always enjoyed relating to children, playing with his cousins and now, his own two daughters. But at this new incarnation of his restaurant, his own inner child is clearly having a blast. The long space is painted with pops of Kelly green. And a slew of signboards let you know you are in Monster Pho country. The tiny, toothy gremlins appear everywhere, from large neon signs to little green monsters peeking out of every corner.

The 36-year-old Tran, who improbably opened his successful restaurant with zero experience in the food business, is thrilled to be adding three robots to his front of the house staff. It might seem that a trio of robotic servers will take away the jobs of human workers, but that’s not true, Tran said. On the contrary, he said that he wants to ease the burden on his staff by letting the robots do the boring repetitive tasks, such as delivering water, utensils and cold dishes. He’s not quite ready to trust his mechanical friends with bowls of steaming hot soup, he said.

These non-human helpers are made by Bear Robotics in Redwood City. In 2017, they started producing robotic restaurant workers who go by the name of “Servi.” Each one of the wheeled creatures has three levels to carry food and other items to the table and take away dirty dishes. (Without arms, their job description is actually “food runner,” a whole other breed than Flippy, the burger-flipping robot, currently working in Pasadena). 

Monster Pho’s robots show patrons to their seats and deliver cold drinks and plates. Credit: Patricia Chang

Monster Pho’s robots have smart sensors which will prevent them from mowing down children, according to Bear. When they sense a person or chair in their path, they calmly steer around them, as opposed to bumping into them as a Roomba might. Another of their tasks will be to escort diners from the waiting area to their tables, while playing music. You might be relieved to know that the robots won’t be introducing themselves by name, so no small talk is required in return.

Monster Pho’s loyal customers love its classic Vietnamese menu, featuring pho soup (beef, chicken, or vegetarian versions), spring rolls, imperial rolls, rice plates, fried tofu, with coffee flan and green pandan waffles for dessert.

They’re also big fans of its bright green monster logo. Tran says that diners have been begging for Monster Pho T-shirts for over five years, and he heeded that call with a bounty of merch. There is now a vending machine and a green sports car stocked with a wide range of monster merchandise, including T-shirts, sweatshirts, blankets, clocks, puzzles, notebooks, golf balls and lamps, all emblazoned with the friendly green creature. Tran also has prototypes of other monster-themed products and will wait to see if there is a demand for logoed neckties, umbrellas, skateboards and much more.

Patrons can get Monster Pho merch from a vending machine or just pull it from an open locker nearby. Credit: Patricia Chang

Tran has been planning to move to a larger space for a few years. His Broadway location got so busy that he opened a second Monster Pho in Emeryville, then closed it to dining at the beginning of the pandemic, turning it into a “kitchenette” operation to support the restaurant’s takeout business.

Looking all over for a bigger space, he said he was lucky to find a nearby location that was already a restaurant in good shape, a corner lot that was the former home of  Bierhaus German Beer Garden (Bierhaus also has a Walnut Creek location, which is temporarily closed). Since it already had all the elements a restaurant needs, Tran didn’t have to do much more than repaint it and figure out where to place his monster menagerie. He is also taking advantage of Bierhaus’s long bar and will be adding beer and wine to Monster Pho’s menu.

The new space can seat up to 107 diners inside (as compared to 45 in the original location). Of course, at this point in the pandemic, no one is ready for close seating arrangements or large crowds.  Tran said that the plan is to bring his current outdoor dining setup to the Manila side of the restaurant. He’ll eventually build another outdoor seating area for the 40th Street side, he said. “But if the COVID numbers are still very high when we open,” he said, “we’ll only do to go orders like we’re doing now, and wait till the curve goes down.” 

Don’t let the decor and the robots distract you — the real draw at Monster Pho is the food. Credit: Patricia Chang

Supporting his neighbors is always part of Tran’s plan. As he said in a previous Nosh article, “what completes the American dream is being able to give back to your community.” There’s a produce giveaway cart in front of Monster’s Broadway location, and this summer, he plans to ramp up that idea with a mini car that will drive around the neighborhood and give out bags of food or produce to folks in need.

Tran’s mother, Tina Le, ingrained in him the edict that he should “treat others the way you want to be treated.” During the early pandemic, that golden rule inspired Tran to provide discounts to customers who participated in his blanket drives, coat drives and backpack drives. He also gave away hot meals, free pho and senior care packages to those who needed it, plus Vietnamese coffee to health care providers and first responders. A bunch of new ideas are burbling in his brain for the green toothy monster to provide even more opportunities to parents, kids and college-bound teens.

Le, who also cooks at Monster Pho every day, is such an inspiration to Tran that the new restaurant space features a wall of framed photos dedicated to her. “I call it my ‘Wall of Mom’,” Tran said. “Everything we’ve accomplished has been because of her, but she never wants to take credit for anything. I think this is the nicest way to thank her.”

Monster Pho opens in its new location on Wednesday, Feb. 2 for takeout and delivery only. Depending on COVID-19 case rates, its dining room could open as soon as March 1. Days and hours of operation are Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Tran and Le pose in front of Monster Pho’s “Wall of Mom,” a tribute to Le and her support of Tran’s vision. Credit: Patricia Chang

Anna Mindess has two professions. She is a freelance journalist who focuses on food, culture, immigrants and travel. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, and Berkeleyside. In 2018, her essay about 1951 Coffee Company was awarded First Place by the Association of Food Journalists. Anna also works as an American Sign Language interpreter and is the author of Reading Between the Signs, a book used to train sign language interpreters around the world.