Cathie Anderson

Sacramento’s Mai Pham sells Star Ginger on Folsom Boulevard

Mai Pham shows noodle dishes from her Star Ginger restaurant Tuesday, November 12, 2013 in Sacramento, Calif.
Mai Pham shows noodle dishes from her Star Ginger restaurant Tuesday, November 12, 2013 in Sacramento, Calif. Sacramento Bee file

Celebrated chef Mai Pham, who founded the Star Ginger chain, sold her location on Sacramento’s Folsom Boulevard to her former sous chef Hung Pham and his partners, Kevin Le and Diem Nguyen. The new owners took over at the beginning of the year.

Hung, Le and Nguyen will license the Star Ginger name and recipes, Mai said, adding that she and Hung are not related. For three of the 10 years that Hung worked for Mai, he had been a sous chef at Star Ginger. He left to care for his mother.

“He came back asking me if we were interested in having him be a licensee,” Mai said. “I had been wanting to do that but hadn’t thought about it very seriously. I said to myself, ‘This has got to be a perfect match, someone that loves it, knows it and has been with me for so many years.’ If I was to make a change, I don’t think I could have asked for a better situation. I feel really lucky. He and his cousin were very motivated. He had been wanting to do this all his life.”

Mai has authored three cookbooks, produced a line of foods for retail and restaurant markets and appeared on Food Network and PBS cooking shows. Locally, she also owns Lemon Grass Restaurant, 601 Munroe St., in Sacramento. Her Star Ginger brand has 21 licensed locations around the nation. Four others will open this year, including one in Sutter Medical Center on Capitol Avenue in Sacramento, she said.

The restaurant at 3101 Folsom Blvd. is the only one that Mai owned and operated. All the others were run by licensees on college campuses, in medical center campuses, inside government office buildings and in downtown’s Golden 1 Center.

Nguyen, who owns a health and wellness business, said she encounters many people with gluten allergies, and she wanted to offer them some appealing menu options. Fortunately, she said, she also knows a chef, Hung Pham, who happens to be her cousin.

“We just want to support Hung,” she said. “Hung has the ability to come out with new menus, and we’re going to create gluten-free menus as we focus on health and wellness. … I had to have the skills of a chef, someone who could fulfill my vision for healthy menus.”

Nguyen said Hung already has come up with new menu options for the dinner crowd in an effort to entice new customers. The new dishes will make their debut in February, Nguyen said.

Mai said her other business commitments left her unable to devote the time needed to work on expanding the evening traffic at Star Ginger, and she is glad that Hung is already throwing himself into that effort.

“Star Ginger is obviously very successful,” she said, “but at night, (the Folsom Boulevard location) is not as successful as we’d like. It’s been a challenging location at night. He’s there on site, and he’s going to expand the dinner menu and make it more attractive. That is something it really needs, but I could not spend time doing that.”

Regular customers will continue to see familiar faces cooking their meals and taking their orders, since most of Mai’s longtime staff have remained with the new owners. Mai stresses that she will be working with Hung, Nguyen and Le, as she does with all licensees, to ensure that the food quality and taste remain consistent.

“It’s still our menu, our name and our reputation,” Mai said. “I feel really lucky, though. I don’t think I could have asked for a better situation.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee