Almost nine years ago, Givral's Sandwich Shop at 2704 Milam was one of the first Vietnamese sandwich eateries to open in what was to become Houston's Little Saigon. It quickly became a mecca for the tight of wallet, who could fuel up on bahn mi, the crispy and delicious $1.50 sandwiches. At the restaurant's peak of popularity, it was not uncommon to see a line of patrons stretching out the door.
But last August 13, a fire that started in the storeroom gutted the place, and Givral's closed for quite some time. Customers dispersed to various other sandwich shops that had sprouted up in the neighborhood over the years. When Robb Walsh went in search of the definitive Vietnamese sandwich in September (see "Desperately Seeking Sandwiches," September 20, 2001), Givral's was still shuttered.
When it finally reopened in November, the restaurant was impressive for a number of reasons: The new and improved Givral's had expanded into the vacant space next door, nearly doubling its capacity; the decor was cleaner and brighter than its predecessor's; and its menu was more ambitious than ever. Something, however, was missing. That something turned out to be owner Nga Chung.
In search of my usual combination sandwich at Givral's but detoured by the mess of street closures downtown, I ended up at Bali Sandwiches in the Hoa Binh Center at 2800 Travis one recent lunchtime. To my surprise, there was Chung.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"They kick me out," she said.
After the fire that forced her business to close, said Chung, her landlord wanted her to pay $40,000 for the renovation while he picked up some of the other expenses. Chung did not have insurance to cover the cost of rebuilding, but because the restaurant was her only source of income, she was about to give in to the demand. Then, according to Chung, her landlord informed her that he was not planning to renew her lease, which was due to expire in a year and a half. Heartbroken, she decided to walk away from the deal, from her business and from her loyal customers. For three months, she pondered her future. In November she moved into the Bali space and gave it her old business name, Givral's Sandwich Shop. It's easy to miss the temporary banner hanging outside the storefront with her new, old name on it.
But isn't the original location still called Givral's? "No," she said. She walked through the shopping mall, past the Hoa Binh supermarket to the sidewalk, where she could see her rival. "Look, it's called Les Givral's Sandwich & Café." Chung explained that her old landlord now owns the restaurant and that his family runs it.
The next day, dining at Les Givral's, I asked the young man behind the counter, "What happened to the lady who used to own this place?"
"She's on vacation," he replied.
"Really? When will she be back?" I asked.
"Don't know," he mumbled.
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An older gentleman behind the counter gave the same vacation explanation, with the slight twist that Chung's brother now owns the restaurant. (Chung said her brother works for Denny's.)
Staci Le, daughter of Chung's former landlord, Hai Le, and speaking on his behalf, related a slightly different story. Last summer, she said, the Les' real estate agent approached Chung with a modest rate increase on the property because of increases in insurance rates and property taxes in Midtown -- increases Chung refused to pay. According to Le, Chung could not pay for the repairs or the balance of her lease after the fire, so she sold her equipment and the Le family took over the space. As far as the Givral's name is concerned, Le claims that Chung told them she did not want it anymore.
Mainly by word of mouth, many of Givral's regular customers have found Chung's new location. But business is slower in the mall simply because there's no drive-up traffic. A search of restaurant Web sites like houstoncitysearch.com and b4-u-eat.com and newsgroups like Houston.eats reveals no mention of Givral's new location. In fact, the old location is still listed as the place to have bahn mi.
As Chung tries to rebuild her business, nature has dealt her yet another blow. Recent storms dumped so much rain on the Hoa Binh Center that the roof leaked. As Nga Chung opened her restaurant that next Monday morning, she was greeted by ankle-deep water. "My landlord won't fix it," she said. At press time, she was in search of yet another location.