Pho Tai is a little Vietnamese restaurant tucked away on a corner of an unassuming strip mall in Rochester, Minn. The owners of Pho Tai didn’t spend their energy on $1 million décor. Instead, they’ve poured their hearts and souls into making food from scratch, and offering an extensive menu that’s so much more than pho.
Pho has become popular in America, and for good reasons. Think about a hot steaming bowl of aromatic broth with silky, soft flat rice noodles (which is where the dish got its name; pho is the type of noodles used in the dish), topped with your choice of beef, tripe, tendon, meatballs or all the above. Fresh herbs, lime and mung bean sprouts are served on the side for you to create your own adventure. Pho Tai’s menu is a mix of both southern and northern Vietnam, where the original family members were from. Their pho broth is made from scratch daily with beef bones, slow braised for 12 hours. It’s hard to not fall in love with pho. Pho Tai’s sells out every day.
But enough about pho. We’re here to tell you much more about Pho Thai.
For starters, it’s a family-owned and -run restaurant. Ann is the front-of-house manager, while her husband, Vinh, cooks in the kitchen, and daughter Emma serves the customers. When Ann’s family members moved from Houston, Texas, to Rochester, it was quite a culture shock for them. They are big foodies who enjoy dining out as well as cooking at home. Rochester doesn’t offer the same culinary experience as Houston, and the culture is dramatically different.
Ann and Vinh took over Pho Tai from Ann’s brother-in-law. He didn’t speak much English, and that made it hard for him to communicate and educate customers about the wonderful dishes made at Pho Tai, some of which aren’t pho at all. “Once I stepped in to help, I was trying to educate people more and help people understand that our culture and cuisine have so much more to offer than just pho. I encourage people to branch out and try other dishes on the menu.” Through the five years Ann has been here, seeing the changes in the restaurant’s customer base, she is very proud of what they’ve achieved. People are trying new foods and loving the fish sauce.
Once I stepped in to help, I was trying to educate people more and help people understand that our culture and cuisine have so much more to offer than just pho.Ann, Pho Tai manager
Sharing food is a big part of Asian culture. Ann brought the flavors she and her family love from their dinner table to the menu at Pho Tai to share with their customers.
Rice and pork are essential to food culture in Vietnam. Many dishes consists of rice in different forms and all cuts of pork prepared in countless ways.
Banh Hoi Nem Nuong
Banh hoi is thin rice noodles made into small patties for ease of eating. You might enjoy banh hoi by making a wrap with the rice-noodle patties, pieces of lettuce, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and proteins, and dipping it in nuoc cham, a mixture made with fish sauce, fresh lime juice, garlic and sugar. People in Vietnam often pack or order banh hoi to take to work for lunch, as it’s quick, fresh, filling and healthy. Pho Tai’s version of banh hoi nem nuong is topped with house-made nem nuong, a sweet and savory meatball made with ground pork and a special blend of spices left to marinade and cure before being grilled. To achieve the perfect texture for nem nuong, Ann’s husband grinds the ground pork they use in house every day.
Com Tam, Suon, Bi, Cha
Com tam, suon, bi, cha is a great dish to order if you want to sample multiple dishes at once over broken rice. Broken rice (com tam) is white rice that is fragmented during the milling process. Once upon a time, it was deemed inferior in Vietnam, so it often got separated from the whole grain and was sold more cheaply. It then turned into an economical eat and its own thing. The broken rice has a different texture; it’s a little stickier, chewier, and nuttier, and soaks up sauces more easily than whole-grain rice. Ann often prefers the broken rice over the whole-grain white rice. “There’s just something about it,” she says.
Broken jasmine rice is steamed and served with an array of sides at Pho Tai. The meat pie (cha trung hap) is made with freshly ground pork, glass noodles, wood ear mushrooms and eggs. The meat-pie mixture is steamed, layered with the egg mixture and steamed again. It is savory, flavorful, tender and incredibly moist.
Shredded rind (bi heo) is made with thinly sliced pork rind, marinaded pork slices, garlic, white pepper and most importantly, roasted rice powder. The texture of this dish is unique. If you didn’t know what this is, you might think it’s a cold noodle dish. Bi heo is bouncy and delicately crunchy, with a nutty aroma from the roasted rice powder, which subtly coats your tongue as you chew.
Top-secret spices and a little bit of five-spice powder, soy sauce and fish sauce go into the marinade for Pho Tai’s suon nuong, a pork chop. You’ll find pork chops at almost every Vietnamese restaurant. It is often served with rice or bún, a thin, round rice noodle, along with lettuce, herbs and nuoc cham (dipping sauce). Every restaurant has its signature recipe. The smell of grilled pork chops filling the space is something that’s simply irresistible and sure to make your mouth water.
Thit Kho To
Family meals are shared and enjoyed at the table; the clay pot (kho to) dishes are especially close to Ann’s heart. They’re often paired with canh chua, a hot-and-sour broth-based soup.
The clay pot arrives at the table, bubbling vigorously, the aroma of caramelized sugar, pepper and fish sauce filling the space. The dish is a beautiful silky texture and gorgeous amber color, loaded with thinly sliced pork and a heaping dose of black pepper. The pork is ridiculously tender, sweet, savory, a little spicy from the black pepper, and rich from the caramel-colored sauce and fish sauce. You’ll want to order extra rice for this masterpiece.
Traditionally, this dish takes more than three hours to make. Coconut water is reduced to a syruplike sauce for the base of the dish, then catfish, pork or chicken is added to the clay pot. This is a meal Ann and her family were raised on.
Try something you haven’t had before in a relaxed environment. Once you’ve tasted it, hear the stories, you won’t forget it. It all goes hand in hand.Ann, Pho Tai manager
Ann grew up in the ‘80s. It was a time when Vietnamese culture and food weren’t really appreciated. Fish sauce was so stinky to the American culture, even the rice and the clay pots were looked down upon, Ann says.
Now, seeing people ordering and loving the clay-pot menu items is a proud moment not just for the team at Pho Tai, but for all the Vietnamese people in America. “It is liberating to be alive and to see this change happen. It took a long time, but I couldn’t be any happier to be able to serve food we eat as a family to a community like Rochester.”
When asked about the No. 1 tip she would give to people on how to bridge cultures and educate people on them, Ann comments, “Come try our food. Try something you haven’t had before in a relaxed environment. Once you’ve tasted it, hear the stories, you won’t forget it. It all goes hand in hand. You can’t say you don’t like something if you’ve never tried it.”
It’s exciting to see Pho Tai bustling with people of all ethnicities, families, couples and friends, coming together to share a beautiful meal.
“We don’t advertise. It’s all word of mouth,” Ann says. “We’re proud of what we serve at the restaurant.”