When Phuong Hoang’s parents’ generation opened restaurants in L.A. after immigrating from post-war Vietnam, the sole purpose was to put food on the table. “They made enough money to raise a family and wanted all of us to be doctors,” says Phuong, a Torrance native who grew up eating home-cooked pho and pork chops. But after stint in the fashion industry, Phuong saw a void in L.A.’s Vietnamese food scene: few places dished up classic Vietnamese recipes with high quality ingredients and great service. Inspired by the food she’d grown up eating, she teamed up with her siblings and husband to open Pho Saigon Pearl on Fairfax. Find out how Phuong honors her roots while taking her own risks in this edition of “A Night In.”
How did you get to where you are today?
Growing up in Torrance, we rarely ate out — it was expensive. My parents and my brother came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975 (my sister and I were born here), so we were fortunate to have home-cooked Vietnamese meals every night. Once we started being able to spend money on food, we discovered that there weren’t a lot of Vietnamese options we liked in L.A. The flavor was there, but not so much the front of the house and the quality.
Most of them were mom-and-pop shops opened by our parents’ generation — refugees and immigrants who opened liquor stores, restaurants, whatever it took to put food on the table. They made enough money to raise a family and wanted all of us to be doctors. Now we’re older and we can think for ourselves. My husband actually graduated with business degree in marketing and working in advertising for quite a while. I was in the fashion industry. We just opened Pho Saigon Pearl last year (2016) but it’s been in the back of our minds for over half a decade. We decided, “Hey, we need to do what we think this area needs and where our hearts are.” My oldest brother, husband, sister and I came together, and with the four of us, we felt like we had a solid foundation for our dream.
What’s it like to be in business with your husband and your siblings?
Not many people know how hard it is to open a restaurant. We just trust each other to do our parts and keep each other motivated. If one person’s down, we have to bring the other one up. My husband is in charge of the kitchen, my sister and I are in charge of the front of the house and HR and my brother is in charge of the business side. Everyone wears different hat, which definitely helps.
Where do you get the inspiration for your food?
Our parents, grandparents and aunts. Both our moms always cooked us what their own mothers taught them — recipes like pork chops and pho. My family is from Northern Vietnam, where pho originated. (This was before the war, before the Communists kicked us down south). My husband took what he learned from his mom and grandmother and enhanced some of the flavors and ingredients. My family sometimes used MSG in our pho because we couldn’t afford oxtail and bone marrow all the time. But my husband said, “Hey why don’t we make stuff how it’s supposed to be, with better ingredients.” Our broth is made with pure bone broth and oxtail, which gives it the natural sweet flavoring.
How do you pay tribute to your roots and still appeal to mainstream tastes?
I think the meaning of authentic Vietnamese food is that you have to understand its roots — where it came from and how it’s supposed to taste.
Our Irvine locations have more traditional menus with 200+ dishes. Irvine has a lot of Asian immigrants, so people already know what they’re ordering. The menu is focused on the classic dishes in L.A., where our customers are less familiar with Vietnamese food. We want to help them figure out what they should get. We’ll explain what bean sprouts are, and how you use the hoisin and Thai basil on the side. We’re more than happy to go above and beyond to show them. Not many know that most Asian restaurants use a lot of MSG in their broth, so we’ll mention that we use actual meat and bones, which is one of the reason our prices are higher. Some people complain on Yelp that they’re better off in Orange County where they can get a $6 bowl of pho. But rent is cheaper there, and they’re not using the same quality ingredients. So there’s a bit of education we do there.
We’ve also added a few nontraditional items in L.A., like our oxtail poutine fries and nuoc mam wings tossed in sweet citrus fish sauce. Once we had traditional dishes down, my husband decided to add a little bit of flair to the menu. Our poutine is made with oxtail sauce and pho broth poured over fries and topped with banh mi ingredients. You have traditional Vietnamese flavors, and who doesn’t love fries?
While we adjust the flavors to the American palate, we want to make sure our family enjoys them as well. An item only stays on the menu if all four of us are super satisfied with it. Our parents visit us every week, and while moms are brutal on criticizing every little thing, they’ll give us credit for being consistent with flavors.
How has the L.A. food scene changed?
Instagram has definitely changed the restaurant game. I think it’s gotten out of hand where people are looking for something outrageous, like a boba smoothie topped with whipped cream, chicken wings, churros and maybe a pizza. We just want to be a classic place with good food and good service, where people will continue to come back. We don’t want to fall into the gimmick or a trend. Food trends die so fast, even faster than fashion. We also don’t want to be a five-star restaurant that serves a 12 oz bowl of pho for $15. We want to be a place where people can bring their families and feel good about eating here every day.