The Next Big Thing
When I reach Tom Bird, owner of Pho Fusion, the first thing he does is apologize. He's sorry that the place doesn't look the way he'd like it to. It's kind of empty, not yet finished to his satisfaction.
"I know, you walk in and you can see that it's a bootstrap operation," he says. "Obviously, this isn't one of those $300,000 or $400,000 openings."
I make conciliatory noises into the phone and tell him that I understand. Opening a place -- especially your first place -- is never easy. Even if you have half a million, a full million, ten million dollars, your restaurant never looks, never feels, exactly the way you want it to. A good owner will always see something that needs to be done -- the baseboards painted, the seats recovered, the art rearranged on the walls. This fiddling and fussing over details can (and generally will) go on for the entire life of the restaurant. And the way this business works, if there ever comes a day when an owner does get a place looking exactly the way he wants it to, the next day there'll be a grease fire in the kitchen and the building will burn to the ground. The food gods find that sort of thing hilarious.
Truth is, I didn't notice anything wrong when I stepped into Pho Fusion for the first time last month. To my eye, there wasn't anything missing except customers -- and Bird suggests that's because I didn't come at the right time.
I liked how the room looked. The warm, earth-tone walls decorated with only a few overblown Asian characters; the simple tables and simpler settings; the space between those tables; the plain counter -- I thought it was deliberate urban minimalism, nearly Japanese in its austerity. But I don't tell Bird this, because I want him to keep talking, to hear what he plans for the future. I want to know if he's going to change his soup.
His pho, to be precise -- that slow-cooked meat broth with scallions, shaved onions and rice noodles to which I'm so shamelessly addicted. Pho is as central to everyday Vietnamese cuisine as chicken noodle and cheeseburgers are to American cookery. In Vietnam, it's both comfort food and convenience food, simmered all day in big pots in family kitchens, served on every street corner in Saigon and Da Nang, offered up for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snacks. Pho Fusion makes its broth from scratch every day, then turns it into four kinds of pho -- with shaved beef, with chicken, swimming with squeaky sliced meatballs, and in a beef-and-meatballs combination. Each version comes with the ubiquitous side plate of lime quarters, bean sprouts, cilantro, sliced chiles and basil so fresh and vibrant it looks like slivered jade, so powerful it seems to vibrate. The tables are already set with Sriracha like bottled dragon fire, with hoisin sauce and soy. The pho is served in a dish so big that were I ever to finish an order, I could wear the empty bowl on my head like a hat. Only I've never seen the bottom of a bowl. Three-quarters is about the best I can do -- and all things considered, that's probably for the best. Pho Fusion is still struggling to build up its customer base, after all, and I wouldn't want to scare anyone away with an impromptu Madame Butterfly impression -- tablecloth ao dai, soup bowl on my head, chopsticks in my hair.
Pho Fusion opened in May 2004 to zero fanfare, which Bird says was just fine with him. He wanted a slow and gentle opening, he claims, a smooth glide that would move him out of one career -- as an investment banker in Los Angeles, handling big media mergers and acquisitions -- and into his new role as fresh meat for this grinder of an industry that gleefully welcomes cash-rich rookies, drains their passions, empties their bank accounts and usually leaves them standing on the street, reeling and confused, wondering what the hell just happened as their creditors haul away the stoves and boxes of flatware.
But Bird had a couple of factors working in his favor. First and foremost, he was a businessman with a businessman's head governing his restaurateur's heart. He knew exactly what he was getting into when he picked up this Hampden Avenue space -- formerly a buck-a-scoop Chinese buffet of no renown, but with good street visibility and a big parking lot -- and chose it over properties he'd been scouting in Boulder, L.A. and the Bay Area. "I figured I could mitigate my chance of failure to 50 percent here," Bird says, laughing but also serious, a realist to the bone. "Seriously, I didn't go into this thinking I had an 80, 90 percent chance of success. I'm not deluded."
Second, Bird is a Colorado native with roots in the community. Sure, for a time he was lured away by the cheap and sluttish charms of the Left Coast, but he grew up here, went to Smoky Hill High School, knew the people, knew the town. He's also half Vietnamese, and he recognized that a core of potential customers in the neighborhood -- which is partly Vietnamese, but with a heavy Korean accent -- would immediately understand what he was offering. They'd see that he was trying to present authentic Asian flavors in a non-threatening environment (read: English menus, and servers who aren't openly suspicious of squirrelly redheaded restaurant critics wandering in demanding Vietnamese coffee, spring rolls and bowls of tripe and tendon). Originally, he speculated that maybe 50 percent of his early customers would come in, like me, just for pho, or for pad thai and noodle bowls. (Being a man enamored of figures and percentages, Bird throws them around in his speech like punctuation.) The other half, he would have to educate.
And finally, for an investment banker, Bird had an impressive restaurant background. His mom, who helps out in the Pho Fusion kitchen, is Hai Bird, the owner of T-Wa Terrace for more than a decade before she sold it to Yume Tran and Jeff Nghiem, who opened Sapa in its place ("Green Light," July 28). Thuy Le, who owns Chez Thuy in Boulder, is a close family friend. When he was growing up, Bird would regularly eat out of the kitchen at the Terrace, at Chez Thuy, at T-Wa Inn on South Federal Boulevard. Bird was built for this business.
And from his unique vantage point, he recognized that with the ever-changing demographics of southeast Denver, it was only a matter of time before someone explored a Chipotle-esque Southeast Asian noodle-house concept -- and there was no reason it shouldn't be him. In fact, there were several reasons why it should. He knew how to create a business plan for a fast-casual restaurant operating with a fast-casual kitchen staffed by veteran help from the Vietnamese restaurant community. He knew his cuisine, too -- and Pho Fusion's mutt Viet-Thai-Chinese fusion menu is all his, deliberately gimmicked to provide something for every taste, every comfort level.
The menu covers four countries in just thirty dishes. In addition to the quartet of pho, there's a hot-and-sour soup with chicken, egg and tofu; an incredibly subtle and light wonton, the flavor delicately muscled up with steeped broccoli. The kitchen does both simple shrimp-lettuce-and-noodle spring rolls in rice-paper wrappers and deep-fried Vietnamese pork egg rolls served crisp and fresh from the fryers, with lettuce leaves for wrapping and a bowl of sharp, peppery-sweet, vinegary nuoc cham. For those brought up on suburban-strip-mall Asiana, there are fried crab rangoons stuffed with cream cheese, beef and chicken lo mein, and a sesame chicken that's better by a long shot than those gummy, saccharine, terrible versions foisted off on fools willing to pay for stuff I wouldn't feed my cat. This kitchen prepares sesame chicken with care, using white meat that's thinly battered, then tossed in the wok -- not tossed into the Fryolator -- and coated (but not drenched) in a good, honey-sweet sauce that tastes faintly of sesame oil. The sweet-and-sour chicken shows the same attention to detail -- jumbled up with fresh onions and bell peppers in a wok, then served in a sauce that someone from Canton province might actually recognize as having been inspired by his hometown cuisine.
Bird's kitchen does fried rice the hard way -- searing fresh white rice in the wok, then tossing it with meat, egg and vegetables, rather than taking day-old rice, staining it brown with cheap soy sauce and re-steaming it to make it soft. There are six kinds of noodle bowls, all made to order, all available with either the traditional rice noodles or brown or white rice. That's because one of Bird's other ideas was that people in the neighborhood -- even if they didn't know pho from a hole in the ground -- would probably recognize healthy food when they saw it on a menu. And he was right about that, too, because at lunch, his kitchen puts out more brown rice than it does white, and more rice in general than it does rice noodles. Bird also departs from traditional noodle-house menus by offering low-carb options: pho without the rice noodles, chicken-and-shiitake lettuce wraps served with a soy-ginger sauce, a simple plate of grilled chicken over mixed steamed vegetables.
Like its decor, Pho Fusion's menu is constantly changing, because Bird just won't (or, more likely, can't) leave well enough alone. He's thought of dozens of dishes that he knows his customers would like -- true flavors of Vietnam and Thailand, pared down to their best, most simple essences -- but he's moving slowly in introducing them. He understands that he needs to find recipes that will work with the small, quick-serve kitchen he's set up; needs preparations that won't bankrupt him; needs ingredients that he can pick up on his visits to Hong Phat Market on South Federal and Pacific Ocean on West Alameda, where he still does most of his shopping.
Although he's already added Vietnamese coffee to the menu, he could have skipped it: Too much water in the drip filter makes for a too-thin brew without the nitromethane kick I'm accustomed to. But some of Bird's other touches show small sparks of genius. Orders are taken at the counter and then delivered to customers' tables, which is pretty standard for a fast-casual joint. What isn't so standard is that waitresses, and occasionally cooks, will walk the floor, checking in with each table, making sure everything is just right. And if it's not? If the coconut curry is too spicy, or you feel like you got in a bit over your head with the meatball pho? I've seen kitchen staffers take entire orders back into the galley, remake everything from scratch, then bring out the new plates themselves.
All of the silverware -- the plastic pho spoons and disposable chopsticks, as well as knives, forks and normal spoons -- are set up on a sideboard along one wall, near the self-serve soda machine. That's standard, too. But Bird has also placed take-away containers there, which means no waiting for a box to pack up the leftover lo mein or fried rice when you're done with dinner.
Sitting down for a meal at Pho Fusion is like going back in time to the original Chipotle on East Evans, or even Ray Kroc's first McDonald's. Five minutes here and you know Bird is on to something -- at worst, a prototype for someone who's going to come in and do not quite the same thing not quite as well somewhere else; at best, his own franchise gold mine someday. And when that day comes, when there are Pho Fusions everywhere, I'll be able to say I ate here way back when. That I knew Tom Bird and his food when there was only this one place, stuck on a corner in Little Asia, before it became the Next Big Thing.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.