At Pho Hoa, Vietnamese soups and friendly service bring people back

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09/09/2013 2:07 PM

05/16/2014 10:08 AM

Gawk at the once notorious, now-shuttered Capri Motel on Independence Avenue and you’re likely to zip right past Pho Hoa Noodle Soup.

But turn behind the motel into a parking lot checkered with all makes and models of cars and license plates from across the metro area, and you’ll start to wonder what in the world took you so long to find this place.

It was a relatively mild summer day when I stepped into Pho Hoa for the first time. The clusters of regulars — a soup pot of downtown business people, students from the nearby Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and recent Vietnamese immigrants rooted in the surrounding historic Northeast neighborhoods — were bent over steaming bowls of pho.

Or, as one server summed it up: “Our flagship soup.”

One taste of the fragrant broth and it’s easy to see why the 2-year-old restaurant owned by Spike Nguyen is attracting such a devoted following: The healthful fare is delicious. But it’s also filling, inexpensive (entrees top out at $9.95) and served in a whimsical dining room by a hyperefficient waitstaff eager to please.

Nguyen came to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was 9. He grew up in Houston, then moved to Kansas City in 1996. After working in the finance department of a large car dealership, he decided to open a restaurant. He chose a location near Columbus Park, traditionally the first stop for immigrants. “We wanted to stay close to our roots,” he says.

Nguyen has announced plans for a second business venture: iPho Tower Vietnamese French Bistro, an upscale restaurant concept due to open in 2014 at 3623 Broadway.

It also doesn’t take long to figure out puns are part of the fun at Pho Hoa, where the staff has been known to don black Darth Vader T-shirts with the phrase “I am your pho-ther.”

Pho, pronounced “fuh,” is a noodle soup that has long been a centerpiece of Vietnamese cuisine and is typically served for breakfast, which may explain why the restaurant opens at 9 a.m. every day of the week.

Diners choose from five house-made broths — original beef-based pho with ginger, spicy beef with lemongrass, or subtly spicy seafood, wonton or vegetable — that have simmered for 24 hours. The result is so smooth and delicately perfumed that I could easily drink up a bowl without the noodles and other savory goodies.

“Pho is very easy to make,” Nguyen says modestly. “If you’ve spent that kind of time, it should be good.”

Choosing toppings can be a bit more difficult. There are the straightforward ones, such as wafer-thin slices of steak, thicker pieces beef brisket and shreds of light or dark meat chicken. Or the more adventurous ones (at least for American palates), such as tripe, tendon or ground beef meatballs combined with beef tendon so they won’t disintegrate when added to the hot broth.

The steak and brisket combination is one of the most popular choices, a server told me. I was not disappointed by my bowl of tender meat, vegetables and silky strands of noodles, although, as Nguyen does, I might try ordering my steak on the side since I like my beef medium rare.

For something a bit grander, I tried the special seafood pho, a chili-spiked broth with plump shrimp and squid plus chunks of salmon and fresh pineapple. Like spicy but not a fan of seafood? Order the broth with a different topping. Special orders don’t upset them.

While pho is obviously the signature dish with the best pun recognition, the menu also includes an array of appetizers, vermicelli bowls (again with your choice of toppings) and rice plates, a selection of grilled or stir-fried meats served with a generous mound of white rice and a lettuce salad with slices of tomato and cucumber.

Try the Shaken Beef, plump, tender bits of hanger steak presumably “shaken” in a wok with nibs of onion then coated in a rich, dark brown soy sauce enriched with garlic, five-spice powder and oyster sauce. The lemongrass grilled pork chop also had a nicely balanced flavor, although I had to laugh at my husband trying to cut it while using a chopstick as a fork.

Tables are equipped with a self-serve dispenser containing disposable chopsticks and square white soup spoons for twirling up the noodles and paper napkins for the inevitable splashing. But you can forgo utensils altogether if you order a bahn mi. The chef had piled 30 or 40 of the sandwiches on the bar as part of a take-out order one night.

Although bahn mi is not on the current menu, Nguyen says he gets large take-out orders from the campus across the street. At just $3.75 to $5 per sandwich, even students can afford to eat at his place often.

If you don’t see the bahn mi on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask; the servers are more than willing to answer questions or weigh in when solicited for their opinion. At dinner one night, a companion considered ordering the tendon. She asked the server how it was prepared, but he thought she was unfamiliar with tendon, so he offered to bring a raw specimen from the kitchen for her to inspect.

Tendon turns translucent and resembles shreds of cabbage that are chewy, but it lacks a distinctive flavor. Another textural experience included the pork patty roll, a rice-noodle wrapped summer roll with a very pink center. The color came from what our server likened to “Vietnamese meatloaf,” a square that had a taste similar to Spam and the texture of tofu.

From the cooking to the service to the ambiance, Nguyen has tried to capture how it felt to visit his grandmother when he was a child. The space is cheerful and homey, with a thatch-and-bamboo bar that reminded me of a bygone tiki bar.

Asian accents include fake greenery and red paper lanterns. The creamy avocado-green walls are inscribed with graffitti, a decorating choice that started when Nguyen asked Kansas City Council members to join him for the restaurant’s ribbon-cutting and then asked them to sign the restaurant’s wall.

Soon other customers were asking if they could contribute their thoughts and the inevitable punny sayings, but the one comment that has probably shaped his philosophy most is “Slow service but good.” Nguyen says that criticism guides his customer service and keeps him on his toes. Other sayings defy translation, such as the “Man Cave” sign, a clue that the men’s bathroom lies just around the corner (but then so does the women’s). I took it as a sign that sometimes it pays to stray off the beaten path.

“I know we’re in a very tough location, tucked into a corner,” Nguyen says. “To this day many people don’t know where we are. A lot of people think owning a restaurant is just about the cooking, but nowadays you have to be in the people business. We have to bring them here, and retain them.”

Nguyen estimates his regulars pop in three to five times a week. Clearly word is getting out. I invited three friends to join me for lunch and dinner: One needed a GPS to get there, the other had a vague idea of its location having stayed at the Capri once upon a time but overshot the parking lot, and the other turned out to be a regular.

Pho Hoa Noodle Soup

1447 Independence Ave., Suite 135

816-842-6800

PhoHoaKC.com and on Facebook

Star ratings

Food

: ★★★ Tasty and traditional Vietnamese fare at a fabulous price.

Service

: ★★★ An enthusiastic and welcoming waitstaff breeds regulars.

Atmosphere

: ★★ The “grandma’s house” dining room decor has touches of tropical whimsy and snippets of aspirational graffiti.

Hours

: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Entree average (including specials)

: $

Vegetarian options

: Although there are none listed on the current menu, there are plenty of possibilities, including a vegan broth for pho, noodles that can be stir-fried with vegetables and tofu to add texture, and salads. Ask your server to help you mix and match.

Handicapped accessible

: Yes

Parking

: Use the free lot in the front and back of the restaurant.

Kids

: The kid’s meal is a small bowl of pho (any flavor) plus soft drink for $4.95. Adults who prefer smaller portions also may order the kid’s meal.

Noise level

: It’s easy to hold a conversation.

Reservations

: Not necessary unless your party includes 50 or more. The restaurant will cater all manner of gatherings booked in advance and advises its customers on Facebook a month in advance when it will be closed.

Star code

: ★ Fair, ★★ Good, ★★★ Excellent, ★★★★ Extraordinary

Price code

: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.

Code of ethics

: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.

What to drink

Creativity abounds, with an array of smoothies, ice drinks, teas, coffees and boba drinks. Boba are gelatinous pearls of tapioca that are added to a variety of drinks. The pearls sink to the bottom of a beverage and are sucked up through a wide straw. The chewy boba bear a striking similarity in mouthfeel to the tendon. Smoothie choices include jackfruit, durian and soursop. Owner Spike Nguyen says the avocado smoothie ($3.95, left) is his best-seller.

A limited selection of beer, wine and sake is available. I tried a Saigon beer ($3.75), a straw-colored lager that doesn’t rate especially high with Beer Advocate, but it is wet enough to satisfy and works well by not competing with the star anise, cinnamon, clove and other aromatics in pho.

Recommended

Pho with toppings

| regular $6.75, large $8.75

Special seafood pho

| regular $6.99, large $8.95

Vietnamese shaken beef

| $9.95

Char-broiled pork roll appetizer

| $4.45

Avocado smoothie

| $3.95, boba 50 cents extra

Discover other hidden gems

Pho Hoa’s food will be featured during the Northeast Kansas City International Taste and Tour on Saturday, a benefit for Historic Northeast Events designed to showcase the Ethiopian, Polish, Somalian, French, Italian, Mexican and Vietnamese restaurants in and around Independence Avenue.

The evening includes a tour of the historic Northeast by trolley and a dinner at the American Sons of Columbus Hall. Tickets are $40 per person in advance or $50 at the door. Go to

NEKCChamber.com for more information.

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