While the city of Worcester is experiencing a food renaissance with the addition of several high-end and trendy restaurants over the past year, there is something to be said for the places that have held their ground away from the spotlight of revitalization.
The places in the corners of the city that feel a little like home. Eggroll Lady & Fish Shack, at 609 West Boylston St., is one of them.
Visiting the Eggroll Lady for lunch or dinner is like dropping by your grandmother’s house — it’s filled with laughter, comfort food and tradition. The sweet (egg roll) lady in the kitchen doesn’t worry about how much money she makes, but instead focuses on the quality of her foods and the love with which she makes them.
“When I started this, it wasn’t about making money. I wanted to do this because it was my way of communicating my traditions and my gratitude to the people of America that welcomed me when I arrived here. This is my way of showing my appreciation,” said Phuong Lam, the Eggroll Lady herself and the shop’s owner.
With its 10th anniversary approaching in February, Eggroll Lady has become a part of Worcester culture, much like Lam herself, who in many ways is the perfect representation of the American Dream.
“I arrived in Portland, Oregon, in 1987 from Vietnam, with no family, no money and no idea where to start,” said Lam, as she reminisced about her journey in a recent interview at her North Worcester eatery. “But because of the kind people I met over time and because of my husband, I have been able to achieve my dream.”
Lam — business owner, wife and mother of three — is a force to be reckoned with, a formidable bundle of the desire to be successful and affection for her customers. Eggroll Lady is a place filled with tradition, values and impeccably prepared dishes, but it all comes back to Lam’s love for her customers.
“I just want to say ‘thank you’ to all of my customers because I am able to live out my dream. I can’t express myself through words like I can when I cook, so I cook every meal with love,” said Lam. “I started cooking for coworkers back when I worked at Steris [a medical technology conglomerate] in Northborough to show how much I appreciated everyone.
“They gave me the opportunity to say that this is home sweet home.”
While Eggroll Lady opened in 2006, it was more “hidden” than “gem” — until a 2014 visit from TV and radio’s “The Phantom Gourmet.”
“I couldn’t believe they were coming to see me in my little place,” said Lam, still proud of the seal of approval from the regional restaurant reviewer. The attention, Lam said, launched her as one of the prime places in the city to grab an egg roll, a seafood platter or some good ol’ New England fish and chips.
Her business — located just south of Quinsigamond Community College and nestled in a modest takeout shack next to Smitty’s Tavern — doubled and then tripled. “From the moment I open at 11 a.m. [Thursdays and Fridays], the phones do not stop ringing with orders. It is beautiful to see everyone coming and ordering lunch or dinner,” said Lam.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Not yet The Eggroll Lady in 1999, to help make ends meet, Lam was a nameless vendor selling fried seafood and egg rolls at a local fair in Brockton with her husband and daughter by her side.
Without a moniker for her business, her banner simply touted the types of food she sold. Still, she became a hit and gained a loyal following. Customers began to refer to her as The Eggroll Lady and a star was born.
“The name was just too cute,” she said with a laugh. “I was juggling three kids and working full-time while setting up my vendor stands on the weekends, so I was late sometimes, and when I heard about the nickname my customers had given me, I immediately loved it.”
Lam worked the 142-year-old Brockton Fair for 15 years. Now, The Eggroll Lady can afford to just work in Worcester. And three days a week, at that — Eggroll Lady & Fish Shack is open Thursdays to Saturdays. The restaurant, which thrives on its takeout business, seats about a dozen patrons.
“This is a dream come true for me,” said Lam while looking through old photos of her vendor stand days with her family. “Sometimes I don’t leave work until 3 a.m. and the best part is that I am never tired. I love what I do here and I love seeing my customers smile each day. It keeps me motivated to continue cooking.”
When asked about her next moves, which include bottling the restaurant’s homemade sweet duck sauce and kimchi-style sauces, she responded, “the future is up to the next generation — my children.”
“We are working on new ideas, but I just want to keep my customers smiling,” said Lam. “I am excited for what is in store for The Eggroll Lady.”