Is it possible to appreciate a restaurant not only for its food but also for the people behind it?
In the case of Pho A.V. in North Phoenix, it is.
On the surface, the tiny, six-month-old Vietnamese eatery looks like many of the no-frills spots throughout the Valley: fluorescent lights, a modest assembly of tables and booths, a buzzing cooler. But through its doors hung with white lace curtains, in the back of the room on a blush-pink wall where an antenna connects to a television that is never turned on, there are three large black-and-white photographs. And it's through these images — one of a young South Vietnamese soldier labeled "My Service," another of a map of Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh City crossed out in black marker labeled "My Country," and the third of the same young man posing with an American soldier in Vietnam marked "My Ally" — that you start to understand what Pho A.V. and its owner, Phat Pham Tan, are all about.
Pho A.V. In North Phoenix: More than Just Great Vietnamese Food
3202 East Greenway Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Spring roll: $3.50
Combination Beef Soup: $7.99
Sour shrimp soup: $8.99
Fried catfish with ginger sauce: $7.99
Tan, who came to Phoenix with his family in 1990, is the former owner of Pho Avina, the Vietnamese restaurant in Glendale that opened in 2004. After two years and a divorce from his first wife (she currently runs the restaurant with his daughter, after whom he named the restaurant), Tan left Pho Avina to return to his home in southwestern Vietnam's Mekong Delta to be with his ailing mother.
"We grew up very poor," Tan says, "but my mother always provided for us. I learned how to cook from her. She taught me to be independent, to work for myself."
When Tan came back to the States, the now-63-year-old had a new wife, Hien. Twenty-seven years his junior, Hien came to Phoenix in 2012.
"She couldn't find work anywhere, not even in Vietnamese restaurants, because she doesn't speak English," says Tan. "So I opened Pho A.V. for her. She loves the customers and is always so happy to receive a tip — they don't do that in Vietnam. Most people think she's my daughter!"
Pho A.V., the initials standing for America and Vietnam, is like Pho Avina in its offerings of traditional Vietnamese dishes, but with a smaller menu. ("If I made everything on that menu now at my age," Tan says, "I would die.") Overall, they are satisfying dishes, simple in their composition and wallet-friendly in a way that stretches a meal just about as far as a $10 bill will go. And given that Tan and his wife are the only two employees, you get the feeling at Pho A.V. that you've stepped into their home and into their lives — because, in a way, you have.
"Most of our customers are American," Tan says, "so we try and do our best to make them understand and love Vietnamese food."
Hien, who works as the restaurant's server, does this primarily with hand gestures.
When you order the egg rolls, crisp golden wheat wrappers filled with carrot, onion, cabbage, bean thread noodles, taro, and ground pork, she will turn her hands in a way that instruct you to wind the accompanying greens around them before a dunk into the Vietnamese dipping fish sauce called nuoc mam cham. If you decide on Tan's very good stewed catfish, sprinkled with pepper and with slivers of onions in a homemade sauce that's delicately spicy, salty, and sweet, Hien will motion that its spoonfuls are to be placed atop the accompanying rice and not the other way around. And if you inquire about the tabletop condiments for your pho, the classic Vietnamese noodle soup, she will mix a bit of hoisin sauce and Sriracha into a tiny dish, signaling that you try a taste before adding them to the large bowl of steaming broth before you.
When you oblige, she beams, at times nodding her head in what seems to be a combination of approval and joy at breaking the language barrier. It is difficult not to want to please her.
The pho is the dish that Tan does best. His beef broth, a concoction of beef bones, onions, spices like ginger and star anise, and, when budget permits, oxtail, is simmered for seven to eight hours, its rich and meaty taste as comforting as it is delicious. You can have it as pho thap cam, the beef combination soup highlighted with slices of beef, beef meatballs, brisket, and a few scant pieces of tripe and tendon — a reality that may cause offal lovers to grumble.
"Vietnamese will eat pho for breakfast, lunch, dinner, anytime," says Tan. "A lot of Americans don't know how to use the sauces, and if you put too much in, they will ruin the soup. I serve my pho with the sauces already added in — and if the customers want, they can add more."
At first glance, much of Pho A.V.'s menu appears to be focused on shrimp dishes. But below its setup of numbered items featuring shrimp are sub-categories of beef, pork, and chicken as well as tofu. Tan says he created the menu this way for Hien's benefit, making it easier for her to understand and to communicate with customers. And because shrimp is one of Hien's favorite foods, chances are she'll recommend it anyway.
You can have prawns sautéed with carrots, onions, and water chestnuts spiked with a tamarind sauce; in canh chua, a pleasantly sour and delicately sweet soup of bean sprouts, tomato, and chunks of pineapple in a tamarind-flavored broth topped with sliced chiles for a bit of heat; or wrapped up in rice paper with things like grilled pork, mint, and rice vermicelli in plump, translucent spring rolls ready to be dipped into Tan's housemade peanut sauce.
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If shrimp isn't your thing, there is a nicely refreshing bun thit nuong, the cold rice vermicelli noodle dish Tan puts together with thin slices of sweet, garlicky pork topped with peanuts and scallions over a stark white nest of noodles hiding crunchy vegetables and herbs. And if you like Tan's stewed catfish, chances are you'll crave it even more fried and lit up with a homemade ginger sauce served with slices of cucumber and tomato.
It isn't unusual that Tan will appear from the kitchen to chat with customers. He is immediately likable, his smile never fading — even when conversations may switch from food to life experiences that leave little to smile about: being wounded three times during the Vietnam War (that blacked-out mark on the map? It's because of Tan's hatred of the reviled Communist leader Ho Chi Minh), spending "five years, two months, and five days" in a concentration camp, and escaping Vietnam by fishing boat only to fight pirates before landing in Malaysia.
If you ask, Tan may even bring out his photo albums (on one of my visits, I went through six of them), that start with childhood photos and end with a beautiful burial structure Tan recently built for his parents on the same patch of land where his family's thatched hut once stood.
"I love my country, but I hate communism," Tan says. "And I love America, too. I am a lucky man."