MISS SAIGON?

Under new ownership since last December, Hong's Restaurant is the perfect example of the small business everyone wants to see succeed. Whether you talk to owner Phat Pham and his wife in person or on the phone, your impression is the same. Here are intelligent, hardworking, positive people who want your business and want to know how to improve their product.

In fact, Phat Pham is more than friendly, he is engaging. On my first visit to Hong's since the changeover, the new owner comes to our table with two small photo albums. "Because this is your first time," Phat Pham says. "I want to introduce myself." He then proceeds to tell my dining accomplice and me an amazing story of survival, faith and persistence, with hazy brown-and-white photos to illustrate his tale.

Phat Pham has lived many lives. From South Vietnamese army officer to prisoner of war in North Vietnam, from boat person fighting off murderous sea pirates to refugee in Malaysia subsisting on the bounty of his own garden, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, restaurant worker to restaurant owner in Phoenix, this glowing man has faced more than his share of challenges. He tells a compelling story exemplifying the sheer will to live.

But compelling life stories do not make or break restaurants. Food, service and atmosphere do.

In terms of atmosphere, Hong's looks much the same as when it opened last year. It's a homey little place papered with flowers and hung with enameled decorations from the Orient. Phat Pham and his wife keep their restaurant neat as a pin. "We scrub everything when we take over," he tells us. Their hard work shows. The glass light structures sparkle, the brown booths and floor are clean. Service is good on the night we visit, but I wonder what happens during a busy lunch. Phat Pham and his wife cook and serve and ring the register. "When we get more busy," he says, "we hire someone to help us." Right now, that's not necessary. With the current level of traffic, the couple handles things pretty well.

After every food item is brought and sampled, Pham is there asking us what we think. "We work in Vietnamese restaurant in Tulsa for fourteen months," he explains. "They don't teach us anything, but we watch very close and learn. We pay attention to everything. Please let us know how we can improve." Little does he know that that is my job.

And so, this is what I would say about the food. At present, Hong's is trying too hard to be palatable to what Pham, his wife, and probably the people who ran that Tulsa restaurant think Americans like to eat--since we are told Hong's menu replicates the other establishment's. Vietnamese dishes are few and far between. Instead, the menu is littered with Americanized Chinese offerings like fried rice, sweet and sour, chow mein--even chop suey.

This isn't to say the food is bad. It's just more like Vietnamese food you'd get at the food court in the mall than what you'll find at #1 Restaurant or Da Vang, or even Lien's Tu Do.

Many dishes have been adapted or reinterpreted in some way. Pham laughs when he tells us an appetizer called "lumpia dogs" are not made from dog, but from hot dogs. He adds seriously, "In my family, we never ate dog." The fried Vietnamese pigs-in-blanket are served like Chinese egg rolls with two tiny dishes of dipping sauce: nuoc cham, the traditional clear, spicy Vietnamese fish sauce; and a yellow pineapple sauce. Lumpia dogs are tasty enough, but, well, odd. "The children like these," says Pham. Fresh spring rolls are correct in principle, but bland.

Yet, Hong's shows potential during the soup course. "Vietnamese special soup" turns out to be a hearty-broth version of pho tai, or beef and rice-noodle soup. Deluxe bun cha gio is also one of the better choices here. As prepared at Hong's, it's like a Vietnamese Cobb salad. Rows of beef, chicken, shrimp, bordered by chopped egg roll and fried shrimp-potatoes, are laid atop a layer of lettuce and cucumber over cold rice vermicelli. The salad has already been dressed with nuoc cham, but more can be requested. Toss with your chopsticks or fork and eat.

But these, I'm afraid, are the highlights of the meal.
I am disappointed with a very ordinary vegetarian chow mein featuring a scattering of fried Chung King-like noodles. I am also surprised when the lemon-grass chicken arrives with deep-fried nuggets of lemon chicken in it and way too many vegetables. Yes, the food is only mediocre, but Phat Pham and his wife are trying so hard. The atmosphere is so friendly, so pleasant.

What may save this little restaurant is location. In terms of restaurants, there's not too much ethnic diversity in this northwest Phoenix neighborhood. This may work in Hong's favor. If recipes like these worked in Tulsa, maybe they'll succeed at Bell Road and 43rd Avenue. Who knows?

In the meantime, Phat Pham and his wife owe it to themselves to visit Da Vang, #1 Restaurant, or even Pho Dong Phuong in Scottsdale to see what the competition is doing. They might learn something. As Phat Pham himself might say: With hard work, anything is possible.

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