Pho has evolved over the years, from its invention in 1920s Hanoi to its popularity in the U.S. today. When the soup, with rice noodles and meats served in a hearty broth, first arrived in the stateside, the restaurants catered to mostly Vietnamese diners, like an exclusive club. As non-Vietnamese discovered pho, the restaurants became more inviting, and the diners more diverse.
When we first started going to pho restaurants, we weren’t always treated very warmly, because we were outsiders — clearly not Vietnamese. These days, pho restaurants have evolved. We’re welcomed as regulars at our favorite neighborhood pho spot, Pho 78, and all sorts of folks enjoy pho. Even Denver, not exactly known as an Asian American mecca, has dozens of pho restaurants, many with the odd names including nonsensical numbers.
Pho-Yo! is the next evolution. When you step in you might not even think it looks and feels like a typical, funky family-run pho restaurant.
The difference starts with the menu: itâ€™s an Asianfusion combo of the popular Vietnamese noodle soup, pho, and the popular dessert, frozen yogurt.
The dÃ©cor is also not your typical mom-and-pop Asian eatery, either. Itâ€™s understated and classy, with no fans or paintings from Asia on the wall. The tabletops are a cool brushed aluminum. The place is clean and bright and inviting, not a dark hole in the wall. There’s not even the ubiquitous “maneki nekko” statuette, the Japanese good luck cat waving its paw that so many Asian businesses have on display, but that’s because Adrienne Tran, the mom of this modern mom and pop shop, is allergic to real cats.
The family that runs this cross-cultural eatery is led by a cross-cultural mom and pop. Adrienne is Vietnamese and grew up in a series of her familyâ€™s Vietnamese restaurants, while husband Rick Lee is Korean American. The two met six years ago and were married a year and a half ago. Theyâ€™re joined by Tran’s kids Lillian, 19, and Christian, 17, who help run the restaurant.
â€œWe wanted a comfortable place to bring friends and mingle and hang out,â€ says Rick. â€œWe wanted a new experience for pho,â€ adds Adrienne. And she started with the menu.
Adrienne brings her family recipe for pho broth (which uses chicken broth, unlike most pho broths) to the new venture, and the result is a clear, tasty soup that doesnâ€™t cloud up when you add the meat, noodles, basil leaves, lime, bean sprouts and jalapenos.
When Erin and I visited Pho-Yo! to meet the family, and try some of their food to write up a feature story for Asian Avenue Magazine, we tried the pho â€“ delicious and filling. We also had the Com Dac Biet, the combination plate of grilled marinated meats and shrimp served over rice (the same combo served over cold rice noodles is called Bun Dac Biet), and it was also bursting with flavor. Ditto for the Vietnamese eggrolls, which were crispy and meaty.
The frozen yogurt was a delightful way to end the meal. There are always two flavors, the Original Tart and the Flavor of the Week, which this week was mango. The yogurt is great, creamy and tart, made fresh and healthy on-site. But the magic really happens when the toppings are added. We liked blueberries, soft chewy mochi bits, coconut flakes and fresh-cut mangoes.
We asked the couple about their future plans. Like many entrepreneurs, theyâ€™re juggling multiple jobs (they both work in real estate and she also works part-time as a stylist in her sisterâ€™s salon). They say their goal isnâ€™t just to work hard and have their children eventually run the restaurant, but to build a business with multiple locations and plans for franchises and leave that as their legacy for their kids.
This is no Asian mom-and-pop shop. Itâ€™s clearly an Asian American mom-and-pop shop â€“ one with a business plan. There are also clever promotions like buy-one-get-one-free Pho Happy Hours, plus combos of entrees and yogurt.
But donâ€™t expect this mom and pop to retire to a life of leisure. â€œIâ€™ve had three jobs for 20 years,â€ says Adrienne with a laugh. â€œI donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll ever stop.â€
You can read about Pho-Yo! in Westword, and here are the reviews for Pho-Yo! in Yelp. A version of this article originally ran in the August 2009 issue of Asian Avenue Magazine as a “Restaurant Peek” feature.