Best Mom-and-Pop Restaurant (2006)

Cali Sandwich & Fast Food

Cali Sandwich, which has won several Best of Houston awards over the years, is the kind of place that makes owning a restaurant look easy. But its path to Midtown fame was riddled with disaster. Nga Chong, who runs the place with her sister, her daughter and her mom, fled political repression as a teenager in Vietnam. She and her husband operated a gas station in Houston during the '80s, until they separated. She went into business on her own and opened the famous Les Givral's sandwich shop on Travis in 1993. She lost $70,000 in her first three years. Then business turned around and she began selling hundreds of sandwiches a day. Profits mounted, but in 1999 the restaurant went up in flames. She plowed her profits into stocks, which tanked. Then, in 2003, she used her last bit of money to open Cali Sandwich. It's been phenomenally successful, based in part on Chong's friendly banter and smile -- proof that being a good person really does pay off. "If I'm not there," Chong points out, "the customers ask where I am."


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