Huong Pham returns to the kitchen after an injury last December forced her to shut down her popular North Side restaurant.
Pho, the fragrant noodle soup that is arguably Vietnam’s best-known dish, can be a very personal thing. Its preparation is as individualized as fingerprints, with no two bowls exactly the same. The soup is known to vary by region, with variations on spice proportions, the strength of the fish sauce, accompanying herbs and other touches. The broth in a Southern Vietnamese pho, for example, tends to be sweeter than its Northern counterpart. For Huong Pham, the chef-owner and matriarch at Huong Vietnamese Restaurant, pho is a creative outlet and she’s missed making it.
Late last December, the 56-year-old Vietnamese immigrant was shopping for the restaurant in a local market when she tripped over a wooden palette and bruised her right knee. Pham says, through her daughter Twee Win who translated our interview, that an hour later the pain in her knee became excruciating. Another daughter took her to the emergency room at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. An X-ray showed her right kneecap was fractured in five places. Pham was scheduled for surgery the next day and placed on bed rest for a month. The injury forced Pham and her family to shut down the Morse Road restaurant for four months while Pham recovered. The 50-seat restaurant reopened Wednesday.
“She was basically immobile for a whole month and that’s something very different for her. She’s always on the move every single day,” Win says. Pham started physical therapy at the end of January and when we met at the restaurant in April, she was still walking gingerly and doing weekly therapy sessions to return her range of motion back to normal.
The online response to the decade-old restaurant’s closing was swift. Customers offered their best wishes and prayers via social media and wondered aloud how they’d get through the winter without Huong. Win, who works at the restaurant on weekends and manages its social media accounts, was diligent in keeping the customers up to date on her mother’s recovery.
“I was surprised,” says Win. “Hundreds of people were commenting and sending messages to us. I showed her all of them, and it was very heartwarming for her to see all the support and to know that we’ll be closed for a little bit, but when we come back there will still be supporters there for us.”
In a text message on Wednesday night, Win says the restaurant was unusually busy on their first day back. “We’ve had so many comments from patrons thanking us for coming back, when it should really be the other way around,” she says.
Lots of restaurants couldn’t survive a monthslong closure, but Pham and her husband were able to rely on their savings from the restaurant and their daughters’ support.
Bringing in another cook wasn’t really an option, Pham says. She has a sister in South Vietnam who could have taken the restaurant’s reins, but she’s been trying to bring her sister over to the United States for the past several years. The visa process has been slow.
“At the time of accident, she was really the main cook. No one else could have stepped in,” her daughter explains, adding that all of the recipes reside in her mother’s head. “Nobody could have stacked up to the level of expectation she wanted. She wants the quality to be consistent.”
Pham had already run two businesses in South Vietnam over a span of 15 years—an electronics store and a café. Before she and her family moved to New York in December 1997 (and a month later to Columbus), her brother, who owned a pho restaurant in South Vietnam, taught her recipes and the basics of running a restaurant. It was a back-up career plan that would come in handy years later.
“She was like, ‘Nobody ever gets tired of pho. My father eats it every day. You can eat it for any kind of meal.’ It’s something that a lot of people fall back on if they don’t know what to eat,” says Win.
After years of working in a Columbus factory, Pham was ready for a change. Pho was becoming trendy in Columbus in the mid-2000s, and the restaurant’s previous owners—friends of Pham’s—were ready to move on. Pham’s family bought the restaurant in October 2008, and Pham’s four daughters have grown up around the business.
“I think it builds character,” Win says. “If I want to do my own concept later when I’m looking for a career path, I definitely have the know-how and the knowledge from her business to run my own business later.”
Win may follow in her mother’s footsteps someday, but she’s more interested in running a food truck, not owning a brick-and-mortar location. “I’ve asked her, ‘Do you want to do a food truck, because we can do the Asian Festival,” Win says. Her mother’s response: “ ‘No, there’s only one of me.’ ”