Phy Phom Pho promises a healthful take on Cambodian fare

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Maggie Ailabouni is not the sort of person you'd expect to open a Cambodian restaurant. The Lebanese Ailabouni has made a career out of operating restaurants inspired by the food she grew up with, most notably Middle Eastern eatery Mazah in Grandview.

But over the 27 years she's lived in the U.S., South Asian fare has become a regular part of her diet. The influence is due to her best friend and Cambodian native Phy Phom, who emigrated to the States a few years before Ailabouni. The two met while working at Sinbad's, Ailabouni's father-in-law's restaurant.

"I'm becoming half Asian, half Lebanese," she jokes. "Phy Phom, she was inviting us to her house every weekend for hot pot."

Together, the duo has opened Phy Phom Pho-a fast-casual Cambodian eatery where customers can build their own rice (BaiBo) or noodle (PhoBo) bowls at the counter. From these bases, diners choose a protein (beef, chicken or tofu), broth (beef, chicken or veggie) and then toppings that include egg, carrot, cucumber, cilantro, sweet potatoes, bean sprouts, jalapeno and basil. Extras include eggrolls, kimchee, chicken wings and Asian coleslaw. Weekly specials, like spicy mango chicken wings, are listed on a chalkboard next to the counter.

What Phy Phom Pho is actually serving is kuy teav-a Cambodian noodle soup flavored with ginger, onions and toasted garlic, and tinted with soy sauce. Ailabouni chose to call it "pho" for easy recognition. Diners will find the taste of the broth to contain many of the same fragrant herbs found in its Vietnamese counterpart: coriander seed, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg.

What customers won't find is the addition of MSG, and fish sauce and peanuts have recently been removed from recipes. The restaurant had to meet the demands of today's dinner, Ailabouni says, specifically citing gluten free and vegan diners.

The 1,400-square-foot restaurant at 1439 Grandview Ave. is the original home of Mazah. When the latter moved a few storefronts down last year, Ailabouni rented out the vacant restaurant, to which she still holds the lease, to the owners of Jobu Ramen. The noodle shop shuttered in January, and left Ailabouni with a decision to make.

"From a business outlook, I decided we needed something to cater to our customers in the Grandview Avenue area," she says. "The avenue did not have it. I am also looking out for the community-what do they need?"

Ailabouni says she loves this style of eating because it's both quick, but also not grab-and-go. Slurping a noodle bowl requires time. "You take your time with this meal. This meal makes you sit down and take your time and actually talk to the person you're with," she says. "You have to sit down and you have to make the effort."