Cheeky pitch: “It’s not just phở, it’s Pho King Fabulous!” Photo: Marites Sison/The Origami
The story behind Pho King Fabulous is simply this: Kevin Hoang wasn’t happy with the phở being served in Toronto that he decided to open his own Vietnamese restaurant. “I love phở [Vietnamese noodle soup] a lot. I can eat it every day,” he says with a light laugh. “I was not really satisfied with the phở I got. I thought I could do a better job.”
This thought came, Hoang says, as he was trying to figure out what to do next in life.
“This past year I felt I had enough of the working life and wanted to have something of my own.”
After a year and a half of preparation, in July of 2015, Pho King Fabulous opened its doors in the popular Yonge and Eglinton neighbourhood, and Hoang happily declares that although he’s “desperate” for a vacation, business has been so busy he has no time to take a breather.
The cheeky choice for the restaurant’s name — courtesy of Hoang’s 24-year-old daughter, Heather, who works in advertising and marketing — is ingenious. But it is the phở that is undoubtedly the crowd-drawer.
Pho King Fabulous offers three kinds of steaming broth — beef, chicken and vegetable —which act as base for nine kinds of phở . An amalgamation of recipes drawn from Hoang’s father-in-law and his sisters, the phở are truly unlike any in the city. The flavours of the aromatic broth are deep and layered, yet light at the same time — the result, says Hoang, of herbs, spices, and chicken or beef or vegetables, having simmered on low heat for hours. The beef broth is made to sit in the fire for eight hours, and the chicken and vegetable broth, five hours.
Why is eight the magic number? “It’s actually the minimum required to make a pot. Ideally, it should be 10 hours,” says Hoang. A key element in making a proper beef broth, he adds, is beef bones. “Other restaurants don’t use the bone at all. They use cheaper beef and cook the broth for three hours,” he claims, adding that some also resort to shortcuts like using baking powder to tenderize the beef or add too much salt and even MSG to add flavour.
Another no-no in Hoang’s pho? Believe it or not, fish sauce. “The traditional way to make pho broth is you don’t use fish sauce at all,” he says.
Unlike most Asian restaurants, which offer a dizzying array of menu items, Hoang strives to keep it simple: on offer are eight types of Khai vị (appetizers), nine kinds of Phở (noodle soup), four kinds of Bún (rice vermicelli), five Cơm (rice dishes), five Các Món chay (vegetable dishes), 10 kinds of Giải khát (beverages), wine and beer and two Tráng miệng (desserts).
Some restaurants have 300 items. It’s confusing for people,” he says, “and your main dish loses its identity.” More than anything, Hoang says, “I want to be known for my phở.
Hoang has no formal training as a restaurateur — his background is industrial/systems engineering, and he worked in IT and software development for 25 years before starting Pho King Fabulous. But what Hoang lacks in formal training he more than makes up for in grit, his belief in his abilities (“I worked as a project manager, so I know how to make plans and execute them”), diligence (he took culinary courses and bartending at George Brown College to have a better understanding of how food should be properly prepared), his passion for pho ( he perfected his recipe by cooking it once a week for more than a year) and his desire to uplift Vietnamese culture in the eyes of Canadians.
“It’s more than just about pho or Vietnamese food,” he says, about his decision to open the business.
Pho King Fabulous is not your typical hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto, and it makes this declaration in the polished hardwood floors, the tasteful modern decor (which showcases carefully curated Vietnamese musical instruments alongside a tin wall painted in turquoise), simple but beautifully plated dishes, and calm, friendly service.
One can’t help but think that the restaurant is in some ways, Hoang’s love letter to both Vietnam, his native land, and Canada, which welcomed him with open arms when he came as a refugee at the age of 16.
After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Hoang, his elder brother (who was in his 20s) and his two nephews escaped by boat and landed at a refugee camp in Malaysia. They arrived in Regina in 1979, part of the more than 60,000 Indochinese refugees resettled across Canada.
“The prime minister then was Mr. [Pierre] Trudeau, Sr.,” Hoang recalls. He notes with a smile, that, “It’s similar to the situation [now] with Syrian refugees,” who are being resettled in droves under the leadership of the former prime minister’s son Justin Trudeau.
The arrival of Syrian refugees (the Liberal government has pledged to resettle 25,000 by March 2016) to Canada brought back memories for Hoang. “I came here like them,” he says. “Life has its ups and downs. I looked back when we came with nothing at all, except the motivation to work hard and do better. … We’ve come a long way.”
He lived in Regina for four years, taking on part-time jobs while in high school (he worked as a cook for the Golden Griddle). “We didn’t have the problem of global warming then so it was very cold in Regina,” he says, laughing at the memory of waiting for the bus in -40 C weather. “I could feel my fingers and feet getting numb and it felt like needles were [pricking] my legs.”
He didn’t think twice when he got accepted at the University of Toronto to study engineering. His brother stayed behind in Regina and so he was on his own in Toronto.
The experience of having no parent or even a mentor to guide him “helped me to be more independent,” and self-motivated, says Hoang, the youngest of seven children.
Nobody told me to study hard, but I did it. I knew education was my priority.
Hoang’s father died when he was five; his mother had stayed behind in Saigon, along with five of his other siblings. His mother died in Vietnam in 1992; all but one of his siblings are now in Canada. It was a lot of hard work, he says, but it paid off.
Hoang says one of his goals is to launch multiple locations of Pho King Fabulous in the city and maybe even have franchises in the future. He says it with such self-assurance that you can almost taste it.