Pho Hoa is off the chain 

Don't hate Spike Nguyen for opening a franchise restaurant.

The 40-year-old entrepreneur from Vietnam wanted to go into business by himself — he used to run a burger place in Houston with his brother — and he was impressed by the operation of the Sacramento-based Pho Hoa Noodle Soup chain. After Nguyen moved to Kansas City, he bought the franchise rights for the metro.

"People don't think that this is an independently owned restaurant because there are other Pho Hoa operations around the United States," Nguyen says. "But this is my restaurant. I don't follow corporate guidelines. I do things here my way."

If Nguyen sounds a little testy, it's because he has heard people dismiss his two-month-old, full-service dining spot as another slick, corporate-owned operation that has entered the local market to trounce family-owned places, such as the Vietnam Café or Saigon 39.

"This is my family-owned restaurant," Nguyen says. He has been putting in long hours with his wife, Jissie Vo, and their teenage daughter, Valerie.

Having eaten in the restaurant three times now, I'll say this: Pho Hoa is neither the Vietnamese Chipotle nor another Panda Express. If you didn't know, going in, that this cheery joint was a franchise, you probably wouldn't guess it. Nguyen's restaurant is as eccentric as any other small Asian place in the area, though it's run more smoothly and with better service.

The meals here — soup bowls, rice dishes, bánh mì sandwiches — don't come off as soulless corporate creations, either. In fact, Nguyen has already changed many of the recipes that came with his franchise agreement because he says the local Vietnamese community prefers lighter broths and better seasoned pho. "So that's how we prepare them now," he explains.

The name Pho Hoa is a combination of pho for noodle soup and hoa for Binh Hguyen, the immigrant restaurateur who opened the first Pho Hoa noodle shop in San Jose in 1983 — hoa binh means peace.

Nguyen wanted to open his first Pho Hoa — it's pronounced fuh wa — in the historic heart of Kansas City's Vietnamese community: the old Northeast. After looking at several buildings up and down Independence Avenue, Nguyen made a decision that seemed inexplicable but turned out to be practical. He leased the rear of the brick structure at 1447 Independence Avenue that had been occupied by the Scimeca family's supermarket for more than a half-century.

The front section of the building is now the home of the Biladu Rahlma Mid-Eastern Restaurant. Which makes it hard to know that Pho Hoa is also there, especially when it's easy to drive right past the building. No sign is visible from the street, but Nguyen says he's working with the city to change this.

Walking into the restaurant generates some culture shock. This stretch of Independence Avenue is mostly forlorn, even if the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences is across the street. The college was another reason that Nguyen chose the location: "College students love pho," he says. "I knew they could be a built-in audience."

Each time I've eaten at Pho Hoa, the cool, jade-colored dining room has been full of Vietnamese-Americans, including a lot of 20-somethings. Nguyen favors a youth-skewing soundtrack featuring the latest pop hits from Ho Chi Minh City, and his place is a brightly packaged Gen Y incarnation of the mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurants that once dominated this street. Viet Hoa is now closed, and the beloved Pho 97 has yet to reopen after a fire destroyed the adjacent Vista Theatre building last May.

Nguyen designed the interior himself. Corporate mandates a minimalist approach, but the Independence Avenue Pho Hoa is a shade fussier than that — something between P.F. Chang's and Pier 1.

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