At Pho Bac Sup Shop, chaos is a feature, not a bug.
by Tiffany Ran
May 2, 2018
A spring shower descended outside Pho Bac Súp Shop, flooding the restaurant with diners on a chilly Friday evening. Yenvy Pham, who runs Súp Shop with her siblings, Quyen and Khoa Pham, knows almost every patron walking through the door. She bellows energetic greetings with her signature hugs; an embrace as wide as her near constant smile. With recent accolades like a feature in national food magazine Bon Appetit, it’s easy to recognize Yenvy and her siblings strewn around the shop, working the counter, checking in with guests, and tending the bar. Her electric, perhaps chaotic approach fills the large space with an undeniable energy, attracting groups and solo diners to experience new takes on classic dishes like Pho which, at the Súp Shop, comes with a side of Bourbon.
What was the process or discussion that led to opening Súp Shop?
This is the second restaurant that we have opened together, but Súp Shop is special because it is in the middle of Little Saigon next to the first establishment, the boat. Súp is, of course, soup in Vietnamese. My sister Tuvy came up with the name over dinner one night.
One thing you should know about our family is we have great ideas and poor planning! Before opening, we had been talking and brainstorming for two years and wanted something fun and casual with a full bar for the neighborhood.
There are notable differences between Súp Shop and the OG Pho Bac. What were some ideas you knew you wanted to bring when you opened the new place?
Same Pho, just with Hennessy!
Secondarily, we wanted to have a gathering place for the community to chill, meet up, exchange ideas, plan great things, and just have fun.
About that Hennessy… What was your approach to the bar program?
My brother Khoa has been creating the cocktail menu. We have been bartenders for just a few weeks now and we’re having a blast creating drinks. The most distinctive is the What’SUP Pho Bac(k), a shot of Bourbon infused with Pho aromatics – cloves, anise, ginger, cilantro seeds, cinnamon – and wash it down with a Pho broth shooter! Veggie broth, for the vegetarians. It soothes the burn and tames the hangover.
In what areas of this menu are you committed to making things the old fashion way and in what areas did get more creative?
The broth is still made traditionally. [My siblings and I] added some flair with the Flintstone-sized beef short rib. We might be small in stature but we never learned how to be petite. Go big or go home was how our parents raised us.
The small bites were where I had some fun. I created a Latin inspired Vietnamese ceviche, with ngò om (rice paddy herb) to make it distinctively Viet and served with bánh phồng tôm (shrimp chips). The sliders are fun too with Macrina potato rolls, nem nướng (grilled Viet pork sausage), and a tamarind lemongrass mayo.
We hope to expand the menu. Slowly. We need the crew to perfect what we have so far. I literally – and figuratively – hired and threw the cooks in the fire a day before opening. See, poor planning!
Many people may have a singular idea of what Pho or even Vietnamese food is. What are some misconceptions about Pho and the cuisine that you think are important to address?
That it is easy and cheap to make. Especially how we make pho. It is back breaking! Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike don’t want to pay a premium for Vietnamese food.
All Viet mamas say the same thing, “Why are we eating here? I can make this better at home!”
I hope that changes with inspired Vietnamese chefs doing some cool things with our cuisine and to offer a mix of everything at every price point so the cuisine doesn’t become homogenous. But like all things, to change tradition, you must understand tradition.
Your family has been in the business for quite some time. What about this process was new and challenging and what did you learned as a result?
Build out headaches! Plus trying to create a bar program ourselves were new territory involved a lot of memorization; especially with the low intervention, biodynamic wines Suzi An of Vita Uva has been adding to the bar menu. I appreciate her so much.
What I learned is that we have a fun time coming up with ideas, but it’s hard to apply because we are constantly changing our minds. We are disorganized and chaotic. Can’t help it! It’s in our DNA!
If you were to lead a tour of Little Saigon, what would be your favorite snacks and stops in the area?
Our neighbor Saigon Deli has my favorite traditional Vietnamese ham and pate Banh Mi in Little Saigon. Thanh Son Tofu for sticky rice. Chu Minh Tofu to hang out with the most gracious owner Chi Nga. Lam’s Seafood for a lively Viet market experience. At least one of the jewelry stores to see the owners chilling and sleeping.
I have relationships with pretty much all the shop owners, so I would visit them all! Huong Binh, Lan Hue, Hau Hau, Tamarind Tree, Viet Wah. Can’t name them all!