How A Garden Grove Strip Mall Restaurant Won One Of The Country's Most Prestigious Food Awards
When John Nguyen got a call telling him his family's Garden Grove restaurant, Pho 79, had won a James Beard award, he had no idea what to think. He didn't even know what a "James Beard" was.
"Why is somebody calling, wanting to see the owners?" Nguyen, one of the many family members that own and manage the restaurant, remembers thinking. "James Beard, we didn't know him."
Named for the late cookbook author and TV personality who championed American cuisine, the James Beard Foundation hands out dozens of awards honoring chefs, restaurants and food writers. They're the Oscars of the culinary world, and they've historically been very New York and very Euro-centric.
In 1998, the James Beards added the America's Classics Award as a way to honor locally owned restaurants that have "timeless appeal" and "serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities." In other words, these are delicious, beloved, unfancy local restaurants that wouldn't fit into any other award category.
Pho 79 was one of the honorees this year, and last night in Chicago, Mai Tran and her son Andrew Bui showed up at the ceremony to accept their prize.
The James Beard Foundation lauded Pho 79 for being "among the area's very first restaurants of its kind, introducing Americans to bowls of slippery rice noodles in beefy broth, topped with eye of round steak, brisket, tripe, meatballs."
The founders of Pho 79 didn't set out to make national waves in the culinary world. They opened the restaurant as a way to make a living and rebuild their family after they'd been displaced by war.
"We were political refugees escaping from Vietnam — boat people — in 1979," Nguyen says.
Several members of the family initially settled in Aurora, Colorado, before relocating in warmer Southern California.
Some found work in factories and assembly centers. Others made a living through food.
"My grandma was selling homemade Vietnamese deli meats after church mass from a VW bus in the parking lot," recalls Diep Tran, who was a kid when her family arrived in America. "As a child, I hated it. She would cut them into little cubes, put toothpicks in them and make me go out, 'Hey, would you like to try this? You can buy some over there in that VW bus.'"
Fortunately, Tran's grandmother, Nguyen Thi Dao, was a great cook — and an even better entrepreneur.
The family had been living at an apartment complex in Garden Grove when one of them noticed a "For Rent" sign at a nearby strip mall.
"Grandma said, 'We know how to do this. You know how to run businesses,'" Tran says.
Nguyen lit a fire under the family and pushed the idea of selling the beloved north Vietnamese soup, pho.
In 1982, they opened Pho 79, named for the year that many of them arrived in the United States.
Nguyen's children, Lieu Tran and Tho Tran, managed the day-to-day operations but Diep Tran says everyone reported to her grandmother.
"She was meticulous and very demanding," Tran says. "Everything had to be cut in the right way. There was no sense if you're going to be be careless."
Starting a restaurant was a huge gamble.
On opening day, many of the kids went to school expecting their parents wouldn't return home until late at night. But that afternoon, the children opened the front door to find the adults at the kitchen table.
"I thought, 'Oh no, nobody came,'" Tran remembers. "We were like, 'What happened?' They said we had to close early at noon... because we ran out!"
The restaurant became an instant hit while Garden Grove and Westminster became popular destinations for a growing number of Vietnamese immigrants. At a time when many of them were looking for comfort and community, Pho 79 offered a taste of home.
"We would make trips there every weekend," says Kat Nguyen, a PR exec and former food writer who grew up in Orange County. "We would go to where my parents could buy all their groceries and do whatnot. Inevitably, we'd think about where to eat afterwards and we would go to Pho 79."
It wasn't the first or only pho restaurant in the area but she says Pho 79 distinguished itself with its flavors. To create the restaurant's rich signature broth, cooks simmer oxtail for half a day.
"They were able to nail having such a concentrated, rich, beefy flavor," she says. "That, I think, is how everyone has fallen in love with it."
Over time, the restaurant's success allowed the family to take over the two adjacent storefronts and occupy the whole building. Everyone pitched in, including the children.
"I'd be a kid and my parents would make me do the cash register," laughs Andrew Bui. He remembers what it was like going there after school to help out his family, "That was their semi-abusive math tutoring!"
It was also a lifeline for other family members struggling to rebuild their careers after leaving Vietnam.
"One of my uncles was in a concentration camp and [he was] one of the last to come to the U.S.," Tran says.
He had been a medic during the war but getting certified to practice in the U.S. was too difficult while trying to provide for his four children. So the family helped him and his wife open another Pho 79, in Chinatown - the one that the late food critic Jonathan Gold raved about.
Over the decades, a few things have changed about the original Garden Grove restaurant.
Chocolate-brown hardwood floors have replaced the carpet. ("I grew up remembering going there and there'd be all these noodles embedded into the carpet," Kat Nguyen says.)
They took down the Vietnamese posters that once adorned the walls and stopped playing the traditional Vietnamese music that was piped through the speakers, decisions that John Nguyen says were pushed by the kids.
"We got sick of it," Diep Tran laughs. "Like every day, it's the same. Jonathan Gold wrote about how the music was the same mixtape on repeat."
What hasn't changed is that Pho 79 is a business where family comes first. That means the generation that opened the restaurant has pushed their children and grandchildren to find careers outside of food.
"I'm not gonna say we were shoehorned but we were shoehorned into going into the medical field or being an engineer," Bui says. He rebelled by becoming a writer... about food. "I feel like most of the pressure to carry the mantle comes from the second generation themselves."
A few of his cousins have continued the tradition, though.
Diep Tran ran the beloved Highland Park restaurant Good Girl Dinette for nearly a decade until closing it in 2018. Pho 101, the only official extension of Pho 79, is helmed by Christopher Tran. And Mai Anh Tran ran a couple restaurants before shifting her business to supplying Vietnamese deli meats to other restaurants.
Wherever they are, many of the Pho 79 kids say they owe a huge debt of gratitude to the family restaurant.
"When you're a kid, that's like your daycare, but you don't realize until later on that that restaurant put you through college," Bui says.
People like Kat Nguyen believe that the James Beard award isn't just an honor for Pho 79, it's an honor for all of Little Saigon.
"If people go because of the James Beard designation, I think they're going to go, 'You know what, let's make a day out of it. Let's do a Little Saigon food crawl,'" she says. "It's going to benefit the whole community."
Tran agrees, and when you go, she and Nguyen have a few suggestions for other fantastic places you should hit up.
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23andMe tells me I'm 13.3% Vietnamese. But my love for Vietnamese food has got me thinking I'm 💯! 😂✌🏼 I love the lightness and fresh flavors from all the lime, veggies, and herbs that are commonly used in Vietnamese cuisine. And Vietnamese coffee ☕️ - it always gives me the perfect ZING! ⁉️What's your favorite Vietnamese dish?⁉️
- Thành Mỹ — The restaurant serves a variety of Vietnamese comfort foods that Diep Tran says are, "really fantastic"
- Nam Hoa Supermarket - Opened shortly before Pho 79, this supermarket has long supplied meats to Pho 79 and several other businesses in Orange County.
- Pho Banh Mi Che Cali - The restaurant also has a long history in the community, serving several kinds of of pho and banh mi.
- Brodard Chateau - This Little Saigon institution is well-known for its em nuong cuon, grilled pork spring rolls.
- Pho Quang Trung - While Pho 79 is known for its beef broth, this place for its pho ga, its chicken pho.
- Tan Cang Newport Seafood - The banquet-style restaurant specializes in Chinese-Vietnamese cuisine. "Get the garlic lobster and ask for lobster eggs on top," Nguyen says.
Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's Take Two.