The Next Ethnic Dish of the Day: Vietnamese Pho

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Olive oil and pasta. Salsa and tortillas. Tofu as a main course. Soy sauce as a marinade. These and other once-unfamiliar ethnic staples have found their way into American kitchens, enlivening the nation's palate and spicing up sales for restaurants and supermarkets.

Next on the menu: Vietnamese pho?

Pronounced "fuh," the beef noodle soup is the latest ethnic food that seems to have struck a chord with Americans.

Although the phenomenon is still in its infancy, pho is poised to become the next mainstream Asian food in the U.S. Its effect already has been felt in several branches of the food industry.

Across the country, chefs at upscale fusion restaurants, catering services and university campuses are scrambling to add the rice noodle soup to their menus.

A Campbell Soup Co. subsidiary has partnered with a well-known Vietnamese American chef to market a refrigerated pho broth to the food service industry.

And instant pho is coming soon to your neighborhood supermarket.

"The story of the last 15 years is that ... the core of the American diet is shrinking, and what is expanding is what used to be considered the fringe of American cooking," said Greg Drescher, education director at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif.

The burgeoning acceptance of Asian flavors already has generated a new category in grocery store sales. Packaged Asian foods accounted for $650 million in mainstream supermarket sales last year, according to Information Resources, a Chicago-based food sales research firm.

In the case of pho, culinary experts say its growing appeal is part of a national frenzy for Southeast Asian cuisine among U.S. chefs.

"Mainstream American chefs ... are being asked to put more Asian food on the menu," Drescher said. The trend is apparent at such casual-dining chains as California Pizza Kitchen, which offers Vietnamese-style spring rolls and Thai chicken pizza, and Cheesecake Factory, which serves Thai lettuce wraps and Thai chicken pasta.

Experts say pho's rising star is being helped by this trend. Introduced in the mid-1970s by immigrants who fled the communist regime in Vietnam, pho thrived in hundreds of small noodle shops that soon cropped up in Asian enclaves in San Jose, Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley. But it remained relatively unknown to the general eating public until recent years.

The U.S. government's lifting of an economic embargo against Vietnam in 1994 and subsequent steps toward trade normalization, along with a corresponding spike in American tourism to that country, also have helped fuel interest in pho.

One Vietnamese food importer said his American acquaintances began asking him about the dish for the first time after former President Clinton was reported in news accounts to have eaten chicken pho during his visit to Vietnam in late 2000.

Vietnamese restaurateurs in the U.S. have responded to this increased openness between the two countries by venturing into mainstream markets.

Among them is Sacramento chef Mai Pham--one of pho's most vocal proponents--who has partnered with Campbell subsidiary Stockpot Inc. to produce a flash-chilled pho broth to be marketed to restaurants and food service groups this year.

The product will target chefs who don't specialize in Vietnamese cooking and want to serve pho without a great deal of preparation.

"For the non-Asian chef, it gives him or her access to a cuisine that is in high demand," said Kathleen Horner, president of the Woodinville, Wash.-based producer of gourmet refrigerated soups and sauces. She declined to say how much in sales the product will generate for Stockpot.

The complexity of the dish is one obstacle pho faces in becoming as widely available as other Asian noodles, such as Japanese ramen or Chinese chow mein.

A full day of simmering beef bones with a combination of spices is required to produce the clear broth. Then comes the assembly, which begins with laying the skinny, blanched noodles at the bottom of a warmed bowl; layering slender cuts of raw and cooked beef, paper-thin yellow onion slices, chopped green onions and cilantro on top; then ladling broth over the noodles. The dish is served with a plate of fresh toppings: Asian basil and saw-leaf herb, bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos and a wedge of lime.

"The broth has to be steaming, bubbly hot," Pham said, "so that when the [herbs] hit the broth, they just wilt immediately and send the flavors up to your face."

Stockpot also has signed on to produce a line of Vietnamese dipping sauces and Thai curries using Pham's recipes.

Further evidence of pho's growing appeal is its increasing availability on college cafeteria menus. A number of West Coast universities with large Asian student populations have introduced pho in their dining halls.

But the trend isn't limited to these schools. Chefs at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, which has a 7% Asian student population, started serving pho once a week in the residential dining halls in September. Within two months, the response was so warm that pho began appearing twice weekly on the menu, said Ken Toong, the school's director of dining services. "If it gets more popular, we'll make it three times a week," Toong said.

Food service contractors also have jumped on board. Bon Appetit Management Co., which serves tech companies and colleges, introduced pho on its menus about two years ago.

"We do quite a lot of pho," said Marc Zammit, director of culinary support for the Palo Alto-based firm. "On the same day that I saw it at Cisco, I saw it at Yahoo." At the San Jose headquarters of Cisco Systems Inc., cafes serving the Internet equipment company's 17,000 employees began offering pho last fall. "The onset of winter came, and we were looking to add some variety to our Asian [food] station," Cisco Executive Chef Marc Marelich said. "It sold like gangbusters," he said. Pho was so well-received--it was outselling Japanese udon 2 to 1--that Marelich is working on a second Vietnamese noodle dish based on a beef-and-duck broth.

In the packaged foods sector, Seattle-based Associated Grocers will begin distributing a line of pho products this year to its 400 independent supermarket outlets in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. Complete with packaging designed to attract the mainstream buyer, the line includes packages of instant pho noodles and jars of concentrated pho broth paste.

Viet Wah, an Asian foods importer that will supply Associated Grocers, introduced the products at the Fancy Foods Show in San Francisco in January. The Seattle-based firm, which has $15 million in annual sales supplying ethnic food outlets, also is in talks with Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket operator, according to the company's president, Duc Tran. Kroger declined to comment.

Tran said he approached Associated Grocers with the packaged Vietnamese food concept five years ago but was told the demand was not there. He credits Americans' changing attitude toward Vietnam with creating the interest in his product.

Ryan Peters, gourmet food manager for the grocer-owned cooperative, said the Southeast Asian trend in the restaurant industry has made the time ripe for Vietnamese packaged products in the retail sector.

"A brand like this comes along, and it's going to set our stores apart from, say, Safeway," Peters said. "This is really a crossover brand, meaning that it will be bought by non-Asian clientele." Vietnamese food products are likely to capture as much supermarket shelf space as Thai foods now have, he said.

As pho gains steam in the mainstream food industry, some Vietnamese restaurateurs also are sensing the opportunity to appeal to a larger market. Some are trickling out of Asian enclaves, where Vietnamese and other Asians, including Koreans and Chinese, have long provided a steady stream of demand.

Pho Bac Huynh, which opened in Westwood last year, is one of just a handful of pho restaurants on the Westside. "We cater to the university students who are busy and don't have a lot of money, and to business professionals," said owner Tam Nguyen.

The spunky 33-year-old single mom, who fled Vietnam as a child, has a vision for the pho shop of the 21st century. "I believe we're on the right track," Nguyen said. "Vietnamese food is the next wave."

Nguyen has trained an all-Latino staff to prepare and serve the food, unlike most traditional pho shops, which are run by members of a family or Vietnamese hired help.

Manager Oscar Martinez says he eats pho every day at work, and he never tires of the version of the soup that contains beef tripe and tendons. "It's like menudo," Martinez said, referring to a spicy Mexican soup that also contains tripe. "It's very similar to our food, especially with the jalapenos," he said.

During a recent lunch break at Nguyen's trendy restaurant, Sarah Pence said she has eaten pho regularly since a Vietnamese friend introduced her to it four years ago. "It's pretty inexpensive for a good meal," the 25-year-old Los Angeles hairstylist said. "And it's good for a hangover."

At another table, Aubri Bitterolf, 26, said she was hooked after trying it for the first time last summer. "I used to come here two or three times a week," said Bitterolf, who works for an advertising agency nearby.

Nguyen's goal is to franchise her modernized pho shop concept, following in the footsteps of Pho Hoa, the biggest pho franchiser in this country.

Pho Hoa has 50 locations scattered throughout the United States and Canada, and three dozen more in Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines and other Asian countries.

Founder Binh Nguyen opened his first noodle shop in San Jose in 1983. He now has his sights set on Europe.

He also plans to Westernize some of the items on Pho Hoa's menu to attract more non-Asian customers.

That may be unnecessary.

"Americans are getting more sophisticated about the food of other cultures," the Culinary Institute's Drescher said. "It turns out Americans are falling in love with Vietnamese food just as it is."

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