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Wichhica Nhim behind the counter in Combo A

Neighborhood Flavor profiles the people behind the familiar restaurants, bars and food businesses of the Eastside

Echo Park -- A few years ago the restaurant that used to be called "Chinatown Express" went through a big make-over, leaving it with new decor, signage and name: Combo A.

Wichhica Nhim has helped run the family-owned Chinese place since he graduated from Downtown Magnets High School. After his parents fled Cambodia to the U.S. in the 1970s, Nhim and his three  siblings grew up on the Eastside, becoming a part of the community they serve.

In a Q&A, Wichhica Nhim shares his experience running the business

What's Combo A's story? How did it come to be?

It was like early 2000s. My parents, they've always worked in the food industry. The opportunity came up to get this restaurant; Chinatown Express was for sale. They kind of came over, took over, they switched-up the recipes and whatnot. I was still in high school so I really didn't have much of a role here until after school when I actually came to the restaurants to work with my parents.

A couple years back, I'm sitting here at the restaurant with my fiancé, thinking of trying to revamp the restaurant. I wanted to redo the floors, because I thought the floors were kind of old fashioned. And then my fiancee, Jamie, she said, "You know what, if you're going to do it, don't do the floors. Do everything, just a whole makeover."

And I'm just sitting there like wow, could we hold it? And then one of my regulars, he comes in and he says, "Hey Wich, let me get a Combo A." So I get up and I serve him a plate, which was rice, noodles and two items, bring them up. He takes off and I go back to the table and I have a seat. And then my fiancé says, "How about changing the name to Combo A?"

Automatically, the light bulb just lit. That's a pretty good ring to it. As funky as it sounds, that kind of works: Combo A. There you go, we kind of went with that. We changed the name to Combo A and that's the start of it.

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Wichhica Nhim with his parents behind the Comb A counter.

What is the best part of owning your own business?

First off, being here for so long, you get to know the community, not just as customers but they become like a part of family. I've met a lot of these guys when they were my age, so I kind of grew up with them. I've been invited to like weddings, birthdays, funerals and it's really amazing. That's one thing that I cherish here.

Another thing is working alongside my parents. Not a lot of people are able to work alongside their parents, and it's kind of cool that I am able to do that. It's not just work, it's just like everyday, me being their son, we get to communicate. It's just that bond that we have it's really special.

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What is the most challenging part?

I keep my food very reasonably priced. Even some people, they tell me, "Man, this is cheap, you should raise your prices."

And just because I could raise my prices, doesn't mean I should raise my prices. I always believe "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." The neighborhood really takes care of me. I wouldn't be able to do this, if it wasn't for the neighborhood.

My plates might not be like $12-15 like other neighboring businesses, but I'm priced here to stay. I'm priced here to last. That's the most challenging part, especially during COVID right now, just trying to make ends meet too. It's tough right now with the lack of traffic

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Combo A with fried rice and chow mein with a side of orange chicken and broccoli beef.

What is something you wish a new customer knew before they walked into Combo A?

I'm the owner and operator here. I make sure that the food and the quality is up to my standards and I keep a pretty high standard. I'm not just a worker, I have to make sure that everything is great. If I'm not going to eat it, there's no way that I'm going to sell it. At other places, people are there just to collect a paycheck. They're there just to fill the role as a chef, as a cashier. They're just selling food. But I'm here, and I make sure the quality is top notch.

How have you adapted to COVID?

The great thing is that the business was kind of modeled as a to-go business. Now, everything is to-go, and thank God for the tablets. Obviously, we try to minimize as many people as we could have in the restaurant at one time. It's been just insane. We just got to keep everything clean and sanitized at all times because it is scary we don't know who's walking through the door.

What is your favorite item on the menu?

You can eat the best thing every day and you'll you'll still get tired of it. But what I love, honestly, the fried chicken is amazing, the orange chicken, classic, the the spicy chicken it just has that spice and a little sourness to it from the vinegar. It catches your taste buds off guard. But I mean everything here is pretty tasty.

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Wichhica Nhim infront of Combo A.

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