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Robert Tran’s Pho 96
WEST CHESTER, Ohio - Robert Tran is a seasoned entrepreneur who has traveled a career road that he acknowledges has had “a lot of bumps” but that has also brought him a lot of success.
In January Tran decided to return to a business closer to his roots - Vietnamese food. He and his wife, Anh Lam, opened Pho 96 in West Chester, Ohio.
The restaurant specializes in pho, a hearty dish of noodles, robust broth, and fresh herbs and bean sprouts that is available with either beef or chicken.
Become a WCPO Insider to read how Tran is molding Vietnamese pho into a fast food system that keeps pace with Americans and maintains is authenticity.
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WEST CHESTER, Ohio - Each Thursday, our "Global Table" column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State. This week, we visit with Robert Tran of Pho 96.
Where: 7844 Kingland Drive, Suite E, West Chester, Ohio 45069 | 513.779.8448. Website: http://www.pho96.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pho96 Food: Authentic Vietnamese food. Prices: Entrees $7.96 - $9.46.
You may gather from the name of the restaurant that pho is likely on the menu. What you may not expect is, at Pho 96, this national dish of Vietnam is served in a "fast casual" manner - a dining style similar to Panera Bread, Five Guys and Chipotle.
Pho, a hearty dish of noodles, robust broth, and fresh herbs and bean sprouts, is available with either beef or chicken. In the beef department alone, you have a roster of choices: Eye round, flank steak, brisket, soft tendon or meat balls. Additionally, the eye round and flank steak may be ordered rare, or all the way to well done.
If you have trouble deciding, the Special 96 pho hands it all to you - eye round, flank steak, brisket, meatball, and soft tendon. It packs a full house of flavor in one bowl.
In addition to pho, the restaurant also offers vermicelli rice noodles without the soup. The "dry" noodles come with charcoal grilled pork, with or without egg roll, accompanied by a tangy sweet fish sauce. You have the option of getting the dry vermicelli noodles in vegetarian form as well.
Goi cuon, fresh spring rolls, stand out in the appetizer section. Thin yet chewy glassy-looking rice paper bundle a filling of shrimp, lettuce and fresh herbs. Peanut sauce accompanies these fresh beauties, giving it a salty, nutty, sweet and slightly tangy finish.
The menu also includes a few rice selections. Pho 96 offers Vietnamese-style chicken rice, as well as grilled pork chop rice plates.
In addition to their regular menu, the restaurant features a different Vietnamese regional dish every weekend. By popular demand, the once weekend feature, Bun Bo Hue (a dish of rice vermicelli noodles served in spicy lemongrass soup), is now regularly available on the weekdays.
Meet the owners
Robert Tran is a seasoned entrepreneur; not that he went to school for it. With an electrical engineering degree in one hand, and a mathematics degree in the other, Tran graduated from Purdue University with every intention to make a career out of engineering. There was only one problem: Timing. "9/11 hit, and the engineering job market was bad," he recalled.
Tran, who described his road as “having a lot of bumps,” took his career in a different direction. Not easily daunted, he adapted to the market instead, and started a nail salon business. That marked his foray into the entrepreneurial world. Tran has since owned a variety of businesses, ranging from granite countertop fabrication to dry cleaning.
Originally from Can Tho, a city in South Vietnam, Tran left with his family for the United States when he was 14. After a string of rewarding business ventures, Tran decided to return to a business closer to his roots - Vietnamese food. Tran and his wife, Anh Lam, opened Pho 96 in January 2014: She runs the kitchen, and he manages the business.
One philosophy Tran continues to embrace in all of his business ventures is his appreciation for his employees. “If not for them, I wouldn’t be making anything. I’m just investing in them,” he said. Tran is serious about spreading the love of pho. He has developed many pho variations in the hopes that his customers will see something they like. Tran describes his rationale in mathematical terms: “It’s just like probability. You have bowl of noodles and bowl of broth. If you offer five different kinds of meat, you have a probability there, with every single one of them having a different taste.”
Even though Tran has proven that he has a knack for sensing opportunity, he still gets his share of naysayers. "People say you can't convert Vietnamese pho to a fast food system, but I'm going to try it," Tran said. "Nobody has one hour for lunch anymore; 30 minutes if you're lucky."
Rice and noodles are central to the cuisine of Vietnam. Tran still thinks about a favorite childhood food: Banh tam. This cold dish of thick rice noodles, is mixed with ingredients like sliced cucumber, mint, and dried shrimp. The noodles are dressed with freshly expressed coconut milk, seasoned with fish sauce and scented with cilantro and scallions.
The use of coconut milk is more predominant in South Vietnam, where Tran is from. According to Tran, this dish is hard to duplicate here because of the difficulty in getting the right kind of noodles.
Another of Tran's favorite treats are deep fried bananas fritters (chien chuoi). These particular variety of bananas, chuoi sui, are
small and short, and intensely sweet and fragrant. The bananas are split lengthwise, enrobed in batter and then deep fried. The crispiness of the fritter contrasts perfectly with the sweet and soft banana.
At Pho 96, the potently salty and heady ingredient, fish sauce, is cut with citrus juice and sweetened with a touch of sugar. Vietnamese food tiptoes on the fine balance of sweet, sour and salty.
There is a definite culture of respect for food, something Tran maintains at Pho 96. He doesn't water down the cuisine, and only serves what is authentic. Tran even provides a "Pho Primer" on each table at the restaurant - a "Cliff's Notes" on how to properly tackle that steaming bowl of noodles.
"I only serve something that meets expectations," Tran said, referring to expectations of authenticity.
By the way
In case you're wondering why the number 96 is in the restaurant name, Tran explains that it is his family's lucky number. The numbers 9 and 6 can also be found in one of his children's birth date.