It's Lights Out For Pho Broadway In Chinatown, But No One's Getting The Secret Recipe
Ky Minh Chieu was feeling glum about closing down Pho Broadway after 15 years of ladling his "secret formula" beef broth over slippery rice noodles.
But as word spread of the Chinatown restaurant's last day of operation Friday, customers and friends squeezed in for a last bite and a chat with the gregarious Chieu and his wife, Muoi.
"I was so moved," Chieu said in Mandarin on Monday, between boxing up cooking supplies and bottles of soy sauce. "They like my food. They like seeing me."
Chieu, 70, is not ready to retire. But the strip mall at 942 North Broadway that houses his restaurant is being razed this spring to make way for a 25-story apartment complex called Harmony.
It's the latest development changing the skyline — and the character — of a neighborhood shaped by working-class immigrants from China and Southeast Asia.
Less than a square mile in size, L.A.'s Chinatown has been getting taller and denser. Jia Apartments, a sleek, white and red building that went up in 2014, was a harbinger of the gentrification to come. It was followed by Blossom Plaza, another ultra-modern complex, in 2016. Each building offers more than 200 units and boasts amenities like swimming pools, billiard tables and communal lounges.
Another 1,000-plus units are expected to come online in the coming years, most of them targeted at affluent professionals.
"(Chinatown is) known for having some really great foodie places that's just outside of downtown," said Ly Tang, a senior manager with Vancouver-based Forme Development, which is building Harmony. "It's also drawing other ethnicities and probably giving it more visibility as a neighborhood."
Forme has partnered with fellow Canadian developer Townline on the 178-unit complex, which Tang said will be knit into the fabric of the community. Architects are planning a landscaped plaza open to the public, something they see as an extension of the famed Central Plaza, across the street.
Tang added that nine of Harmony's units — or 6% — are being set aside for low-income renters. The rest will be market-rate.
Community activist Lorna Xu said those affordable units will barely make a dent in L.A.'s housing crisis. The development will worsen the rental market, she said, and displace current residents.
"Around Chinatown, landlords can see that property value is rising," said Xu, a web designer who volunteers for Chinatown Community for Equitable Development. "So they're trying to either raise rents or evict tenants and then raise rents for the newcomers."
Harmony isn't slated to open until 2022 but for Xu and others fighting to keep Chinatown affordable, especially for older immigrants with limited English, it's already changing the neighborhood. The businesses it's replacing — Pho Broadway, the eyeglass shop next door to it — are owned by people with deep roots in Chinatown.
"It's not like a new hip restaurant that will come in and, if it doesn't do well, will leave, rather than wanting to stay here and really be a part of the community," Xu said.
Inside Pho Broadway, behind the cash register and the gold-painted Buddha, is one of the last decorative items Chieu will take down: a collage of photos he and his wife have collected during four decades of living in Chinatown.
There are pictures of Chieu posing with foreign dignitaries who have passed through Chinatown. Another shows him and his wife flanked by their three kids after a kung fu performance with the American Vietnam-Chinese Friendship Association.
A refugee from Vietnam, Chieu hadn't expected to build this life in Los Angeles. He first landed in New York, in 1977, before a cousin lured him to Boston. After almost a year studying English while working as a dishwasher, Khieu was invited by former students of his — he had been their kung fu master in Vietnam — to visit them in California.
"I never went back," Chieu said with a laugh.
Chieu sponsored his wife to join him in L.A. They started their family - first a son, then a daughter, and then another son — which he supported by working at a factory that made aircraft parts.
Being a mighty eater who liked it when others enjoyed food, Chieu dreamed of owning a restaurant. In 2005, he decided to buy out another Vietnamese eatery for $60,000 and launched Pho Broadway. He knew it would be successful because he was leading the kitchen.
"When I taste a dish once or twice, I know how to cook it," Chieu said.
His restaurant developed a loyal customer base and earned a solid four-star rating on Yelp. When his daughter Nancy came on board, she spruced up the restaurant's Facebook presence and this year launched an Instagram account.
The possibilities felt endless to Chieu, even though he knew the end was coming. In 2017, the strip mall was sold and Chieu's long-term lease was up. He was to go month-to-month on the rent until it was time to vacate.
On Monday, some customers hadn't seen the Instagram post about the restaurant closing. Rich Lang had driven with his co-worker from their investment firm on Bunker Hill for a bowl of pho.
"We make the effort to come here," Lang said. "There's not a lot of Vietnamese food downtown."
For their troubles, Muoi placed cold cans of Coke into their hands, and thanked them for making the trip.
It will take two-and-a-half-years to build Harmony. Beneath two floors of offices, the ground floor will feature four small retail spaces. Forme Development representative Tang said they will be priced affordably for local vendors.
Activists like Xu are skeptical. She thinks it's unlikely the spots will go to mom and pop shops that would serve immigrants, whom she said could use a grocery store since losing Ai Hoa Market to rising rents, or places to buy herbal medicine.
But Chieu can picture himself coming back when the complex is completed.
He anticipates rent will be higher than the sub-$3,000 he pays now, but he grows animated at the thought of reopening Pho Broadway with new appliances, new furniture, new everything.
That's why he won't reveal his broth recipe. He's waiting until the time is right to get back in the game.
"How do I make my pho?" Chieu laughed. "I'll never tell!"
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