The magic of the pho and other Vietnamese food at San Jose’s Phở Hà Nội begins with beef broth bubbling in a cauldron that is almost as tall as owners Huyen “Helen” and Harry Nguyen. Over 500 pounds of shank bones are gently simmered for 24 hours, and the results are elegant and rich with marrow.
For Helen, it all begins with quality ingredients and authenticity.
“Everything we use is the best,” she told San José Spotlight. “We took all the original recipes and worked with them to reduce the sodium and MSG. We get weekly deliveries of Harris Ranch beef, and we use only free-range chickens. The produce comes straight from the farm to the table, so everything is fresh. That is the most important thing.”
Being restaurateurs wasn’t the original plan when the couple came to America in 1998. Harry found work as an engineer and Helen was studying computer science. Harry’s job ended when his company moved to Boston and Helen, who was pregnant with their first child, found a job with an export company. Frustrated with her low wages, they began their own successful shipping business.
“Then some of my husband’s family came over here, and seven of them started working in restaurants,” she said. “They were getting underpaid and getting late payments all the time. So my husband said, ‘Why don’t we open our own restaurant and hire them?’ I asked him if he was crazy and he tried to convince me for two years.’’
In 2016, Helen gave in and Phở Hà Nội was born, followed by a second location in Cupertino. The couple recently opened a fusion restaurant, La Barrique, also in San Jose.
“When we first started, I thought, ‘This is not as simple as we thought it would be,’’ she said. “We thought it would be that we would cook, we sell and we collect money. The relatives knew how to cook, but they did not know how to wait tables and they did not speak English well. Everything was in my name, so I jumped into the business. But we did not have any experience at all.”
Pho, a hot soup dish that combines beef broth, rice noodles, meat and herbs, is the national dish of Vietnam and of course dominates the menu with beef, pork and chicken options.
According to Helen, the most popular dish is Phở Bò Đặc Biệt, a combination of different meats, including raw and well-done flank steak, brisket, tendon, tripe and a meatball. It’s served with rice noodles in very hot broth, which cooks the raw beef. The different types of cooked meat make the dish nicely varied in tastes and textures.
The Phở Sườn Bò makes for an impressive presentation at the table, with huge two-bone short ribs floating on top of the dish. Scissors are provided to cut the meat, which is cooked well done. On its own, the meat tastes a little dry, but dipping it into the broth enlivens it and gives it a new dimension.
Not in the mood for pho? Helen says rotisserie chicken, Mì Gà Rôti, is one of the most popular dishes they serve: a tender and juicy marinated half-chicken with perfectly seasoned, crisp skin served with lightly sauced egg noodles and a soft boiled egg.
Cơm Bò Lúc Lắc is another good choice. Tender cubes of steak tenderloin are paired with bell peppers and onions served with tomato sauce-infused rice.
The portion size of all the dishes is generous, and just about any could be split between two people as a light lunch. The short ribs, for example, weigh about a pound and a quarter before cooking, almost guaranteeing leftovers for later.
Phở Hà Nội also offers a wide range of Vietnamese beverages, including fruit juices, teas and smoothies.
Many of the menu items also list preparation times, which workers on a timed lunch break will most likely appreciate. But even the simplest dishes can take a lot of preparation behind the scenes.
“Cooking Vietnamese food is not like cooking American food,” Helen said. “Our beef cooks for three or four hours to make it tender. Our soup takes a day to make. Everything has to cook for so long.”
Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest days, bringing in an average of 1,500 customers from all over the San Francisco Bay Area. Helen estimates about two-thirds of her clientele are of Asian descent with loyalty to their homeland on the other side of the world.
“Every day, I am here,” said longtime customer Tommy Cu. “It brings back memories of Vietnam. Everything about it is rich and fresh. I consider this the best in the area—it makes me feel like I am in Saigon right now.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]
Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected]
Phở Hà Nội
Location: 969 Story Road, Ste. 6048 San Jose, CA 95122
Social media: https://www.instagram.com/phohanoisanjose/
- Monday 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m.
- Tuesday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5-9 p.m.
- Wednesday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m.
- Thursday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5-9 p.m.
- Friday 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
- Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
What puts them on the map: Delicious pho options like the Phở Bò Đặc Biệt