A tale of two restaurants: How two local eateries are handling the pandemic
Aug 24, 2020 03:50PM
By Mariden Williams
Nailya Ragimova and her husband have been running Doner Kebab Express since 2017. (Mariden Williams)
By Mariden Williams | [email protected]
The pandemic has put a lot of strain on mom-and-pop businesses. Two local restaurants that share the same parking lot are doing their best to adapt and roll with the punches.
Enjoy Chinese is a family-run operation that's been serving from-scratch Chinese food for 12 years, and in that time they've become a favorite for many in the valley. The restaurant is the realization of a lifelong dream for chef Cuong Wong, who runs the business with help from his wife Denise Bang Tam and their five children. Located at 2629 W. 7800 South, they serve good-quality Chinese favorites at reasonable prices, and are very considerate about food allergies. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is the way they're handling the pandemic: they have transformed the front of their building into a no-contact food pickup booth.
“Our dining room has always been known to be very quaint and small, therefore, maintaining social distancing was very challenging,” said daughter Eva Trinh Wong. So, after many family meetings, they closed their dining room and reopened with a sophisticated, thought-out curbside pickup systems. “The learning curve was steep, but we knew it was something we had to do,” Eva said.
You can tell whether or not your food is ready for pickup just by glancing at the large front windows. One window is labeled “Currently Making,” while the other says “Ready for Pickup.” The names of those who have placed takeout orders are written on index cards, which get moved from one window to the other according to the status of the order.
When you approach, you point at your name, and your masked server nods at you for confirmation from within before removing your name from the window. You then proceed to the front door, which has another window set into it, shielded by a curtain of plastic strips like those you might see in a walk-in freezer. Payment methods and receipts are passed back and forth through the plastic curtain, and pens are sanitized between uses. Soon enough, your food is handed to you through the curtain, and you walk away, satisfied that you have obtained a good meal without trading germs with another human being.
Even with these precautions, Enjoy has experienced a considerable decline in revenue, particularly during their lunch hours. But Eva says that despite the revenue dip, the hardest part for the family has been the inability to engage with the customers the way they used to.
“Many of our patrons have been customers since we opened, and through the years, we have developed relationships, and truly consider them to be our friends,” Eva said.
In the very same parking lot as Enjoy is another, newer restaurant that is also very worth a visit: Doner Kebab Express. Run by Nailya Ragimova and her husband, who both immigrated to the US from Azerbaijan in 1992, it's been in business for about three and a half years.
"You know, it's just the food itself,” Nailya said when asked what inspired her to start the restaurant. “The food and the attachment to my roots. It has a lot of connection to culture, to our homeland, to comfort. And it helps keep my skills alive. I grew up on kebabs, grew up making them."
There are very few dishes on the menu, but that extreme specialization means that every dish is absolutely delicious. Most dishes are built around one of two meats, either chicken or beef, both of which are seasoned generously with garlic and other spices before being slow-roasted on a vertical rotisserie spit for hours. The meat is piled onto the spit into the shape of a top-heavy cone, and as the outer layer cooks, it is sliced off in thin strips. The result is extremely tender, flavorful meat, which is then loaded together with tomatoes, lettuce, onion, cucumbers, and a tzatziki-like yogurt sauce onto either pita bread (as a doner kebab sandwich or wrap), or directly onto a platter.
For $6, you'll be hard-pressed to find a bigger or tastier meal. One sandwich all on its own will comfortably feed two people. The quality of both the meat and the vegetables is amazing; even in seasons when the tomatoes at other sandwich places tend to be pale and insipid, the ones at Doner Kebab Express have been red and flavorful.
Despite the deliciousness of the food, their lobby is often quiet. The pandemic has not helped. Like neighboring restaurant Enjoy, Doner Kebab Express closed for a few weeks when social distancing orders first came out. Unlike Enjoy, there was some worry that they might not be able to open back up again.
"It's difficult. It's a very challenging time. Like everybody else, we're struggling," said Nailya. "Of course, safety is very important. We always wear masks. But there are a lot of challenges in communication, and in enforcing safety rules. But we're trying to keep people safe, because it's important."