How Herbal Restaurant Heals During Pandemic

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Above: Dining at Herbal / Image: Yelp

“I’m retired, by the way,” 66-year-old Herbal Restaurant owner William Lue light-heartedly mentions during a thorough description of his business affairs. As a trilingual California resident since the late ’60s, no one knows better than Lue how to persevere in pandemic-laden San Francisco.

Lue got the keys for Herbal Restaurant on March 15 to open the following day – the day of the nation-wide shelter in place order. “We [were] ready to set up [with] tablecloths, napkins, everything…” Lue begins. It took a moment to process that “Ohhh, shelter in place means shut down…” 

With plans for Herbal put on the backburner, Lue had another one to tend to – Savor House in Oakley. Now juggling two demographics—the established one at Savor House and the anticipated one for Herbal Restaurant—Lue’s doing his best to stay afloat.

Noble Work in the Workplace

Though Lue’s currently balancing two operations, he opens restaurants with the ease of any other hobby. “Some I own, some I help others to build up…some take two months to a year [per] restaurant,” he explains. 

Lue mentions having opened almost 40 restaurants, thanks to his like-minded community. “Brothers, sisters from church and friends…they invest and have fun, enjoy eating, work part-time, open a restaurant here and there…” While Lue’s made restaurants a communal interest, it’s not without stress.

Part of Lue’s involvement in Savor House—a Japanese joint—was to aid immigrant employees. Lue clarifies his role as owner, naming, “…I help newly arrived immigrants to settle in and make some money. They all work hard because they know someday they’re gonna own their own business.” 

He continues explaining the long-term vision. “Usually I sell my business to the employee…Officially, I’m the operator on paper, but I treat them as owners too because I cannot work there much longer. They are young. I’m already 66.” While a rewarding process, the pandemic’s undoubtedly thrust Lue and his crew into survival mode. 

Eclectic Past Bodes Well in Present Times

As a University of San Francisco major in International Marketing, Lue always knew he’d work for himself. “Every 10 years I wanted to do a drastic change, do something different. I started in restaurants with my dad when I was little…opened some on my own,” he notes. 

Still, it wasn’t until Lue’s creative pursuits in furniture and pottery that he discovered the “unknown, not discovered” world of plants and trees. His curiosity around what plants “do for us” soon manifested as Herbal’s Burmese cuisine with a menu featuring Indian, Vietnamese, and Thai tastes. 

Now, not only does Lue’s food convey his “hospitality” and “hearty comfort,” but he wants people to learn, “Oh, this is Asia, Southeast Asia, Burmese food. The brain will register, remember.” The goal’s to see food as an investment in your wellness. Herbal’s dishes help retrain the body to crave what’s natural to it. 

Lamb shank marinated in herbs and spices / Image: Yelp

Sacred Tea Preparations

Lue declares tea leaves are a staple to Herbal Restaurant. “We have tea leaf salad, picked waist-high…[you] make tea to drink, or you ferment or pickle for salad eating…for a lot of caffeine.” 

He continues, “If you eat [it], it’s gonna stay in your body for a few hours. For some people, it puts them to sleep. For some, it keeps their eyes wide open.” Regardless of the body’s response, Herbal’s tea-infused foods awaken all its guests to the power of eating from our roots. Physiology proves it.

Lue discusses the elaborate and methodical tea handling process. “Here’s the secret. Tea leaves are fresh and bulky. When you heat them up they shrink and soften. You can close, put in a jar, put in a container, and ferment it. After [a] few weeks, [it] changes colors to dark green…I can smell the caffeine, the perfume, it will hit my nose…I know good caffeine, good tea…” Lue evokes a kinship with the whole process – from the time it’s harvested to the moment it hits the plate. 

As a result, Lue knows the profound experience that is their tea leaf salad. Among its crunchiness from the roasted nuts and seeds, the herbaceousness from the cilantro and kefir lime leaves, and the toasted garlic and garlic oil, it’s unlike anything on the San Fran market. 

The Herbal Impact

Lue holds an embodied knowing of plant power, as conveyed through his food. His intentionality speaks volumes. “Herbal start[s] with an H. Happy starts with an H. Healthy, with an H…Humble…the letter H speaks to me…” Lue professes. 

It’s obvious Lue grew up on strong principles. He validates his mother’s “eat first” philosophy. He relays her message, stating, “Before you fight, before you argue. Let’s eat first…After eating, you have no energy to fight anymore.” Full-stomachs soften minds; grounding food grounds us.

Lue’s whole self’s invested in his business ventures. “I brought my own live plants inside the dining area,” he begins. “All the empty areas…a lot of people don’t know what live herb spices, trees, plants look like…[Now], people can look it up, what it’s good for, medicinal properties…immune-boosting…” etc. Lue’s infusions are educational and transformative, as he suggests the need for folks to do “a little here, little there” in your own life. 

Amidst the pandemic, Lue’s working with DoorDash to provide boxed meals to customers. Additionally, he’s decreased their prices from $22-29 a meal to $15 or less. Lue sports their mango chutney pork and stewed oxtail as musts, alongside their vegan, vegetarian, and seafood options.

Support Herbal Restaurant as a way to reclaim your own health during these times. Lue echoes the proverb that you are what you eat. How can your herbal food choices foster your own healing? See for yourself with Herbal Restaurant!

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