The City of Ate Interview: DaLat Owner Khanh Nguyen on the Power and Problems of Pho
Khanh Nguyen had a successful career as a local attorney when he decided to take a little time off, a sabbatical of sorts, between projects. During that time, he immersed himself in traditional Vietnamese cooking, spending months trying to perfect various recipes, mainly concentrating on pho, which is highly relevant considering that when he was just 8 years old, a bowl of pho saved his life.
The months off with time spent cooking turned into a year and, eventually, Nguyen confessed to his wife that what he wanted open a restaurant. She reminded him that on their first date many years ago he told her his life-long dream was to open a restaurant. With that marital nod for the go-ahead, Nguyen opened DaLat at 2357 Fitzhugh in East Dallas. But Nguyen didn't want just any pho spot -- he wanted to serve late-night pho for those seeking better nourishment than a sourdough bacon burger at a greasy drive thru.
For the past month DaLat has kept the lights on and the stove hot for Dallasites until as late as 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Nguyen recently expanded his hours to include lunchtime.
How are the hours working out for you? It's not too bad. I've learned that my career as an attorney prepared me well for long hours. It's certainly not something I want to continue for a long time, but I'm accustomed to the massive hours.
I just hired a GM and we're trying to find a balance with the hours we're keeping. Having her here allows me to concentrate on other basic things, like a new sign and new patio furniture.
On nice nights I hear the windows over the bar are open... Yeah, both windows over the bar completely open up.
What's been the biggest adjustment so far? The only hard part is that it's seven days a week. And when my wife pulls a nightshift in the ER at Medical City (she's a physicians assistant) and then the baby sitter has issues, it can be a challenge.
Have you gotten your fill of cooking yet? I'm not doing that much cooking anymore. I created the recipes and have trained the staff, and I'm still chief accountability officer for everything. But, right now I'm mostly just doing the more complicated stuff, like the pho broth. It's very very hard to teach that. It's not just a recipe. I have to baby the pho broth all the time. How do you baby a broth? One of the things I learned in our first week was that our pho broth would be awesome during the first part of the shift, but about half way through it would start changing. There are so many flavors in the pho broth and it's so delicate in terms of how it's put together and it has to sync just right.
When you pour the broth over the dry parts, it's supposed to be boiling hot. And if you have your a 60 quart pot at a rolling boil, it evaporates and there's no way to fix it. You can't just hydrate it. Different ingredients evaporate at different points. So, we figured out a way to cool it down and go to a three pot system and keep the huge pot cool, another pot on the stove not turned on, then the smallest pot over heat and basically cooking it to order so that we're not destroying any of the flavor.
What's the customer flow like late at night? Sometimes we get a lull around midnight or 1 a.m., and we're fooled into thinking we should pack it up, and it never fails we'll get 40 or 50 people at 2:30, in packs of 12 and 15.
That's what you wanted, right? Yes, absolutely. During the daytime we get the local folks from East Dallas and, and a lot club goers and some night-shift workers - and the Asians flock because they know there's nothing better than a "preventive cure" [bowl of pho] after a late night.
Are you getting any criticism that it's not "like mom made?" Some people complain that it's an Americanized menu. But, it's really a lot of what I like. In terms of the pho, I'm just super finicky about our meat, so we don't have any fat or tendons. We trim the meat real well. I just don't serve it if I wouldn't eat it. But, I'm getting some complaints from the hard-core folks that it's not traditional (lacks the tendons and fat). But, it's the flavor that's authentic. Your restaurant is named after a city in Vietnam... My father was the last mayor of DaLat before the country fell to the communist.
Were you born in Vietnam? Yes, I'm the second youngest of 9 siblings. We were there when the country fell, which was April 30, 1975.
How old were you then? I was 8.
You told me earlier a bowl of pho saved your life and that it had to do with your family leaving Vietnam during the war... Well, since my father was part of the government, when the country was falling, there was a general order to all the governor and mayors of South Vietnam to stay in and fight. No one was allowed to evacuate their cities. But, it was pretty obvious that we were losing the war and all the cities were falling.
Then at one point it looked like Dalat was next, so my father put all of us on a plane to Saigon, while he stayed behind to evacuate the city and to stay with the populous and evacuate by land and make sure all the soldiers helped out with the evacuation. It took him two to three days to get to Saigon. So, we met up with him and we got to the airport to get out.
Once we get to the airport, they had messed up our reservations. We were three tickets short - three of us got left off. Including me.
We had some uncles with us too and we were all trying to get out. But, we couldn't all go together, so we all stayed.
We caravanned out to a coastal city because my dad heard that all the countries around the world were sending ships to the coast of Vietnam because they knew there was going to be a mass exodus. So, all the international ships were going to gather off the coastal towns.
We found a convent that took us in and it was right on the beach. We wanted to be there in case the ships started showing up, we could get on. We stayed there for two days but nobody came.
So, my dad decided we should head back to Saigon because it looked like a dead end. We stayed one more night and the morning when we got up we went to have a bowl of pho, as all Vietnamese do. And while eating, my uncle spilled his entire bowl of pho on his lap. He needed to go back and clean up, change clothes, whatever. It took him about an hour to get cleaned up and rejoin the group.
Well, in the time it took him to get cleaned up, they closed the roads leading into Saigon and no one could get in or out. Had we left an hour earlier, we would have been stuck in Saigon, which would have been really bad since my dad was part of the old government. But, since we were outside the city still, we were able to go back to the coast. A day later the ships started showing up off the coast. We got on a ship, which then took us to an American battleship out in the ocean.
Where did you go from there? There were two "processing camps" for Vietnamese in the United States. One was in California and the other in Arkansas. We were all sent to the one in Arkansas.
How did you get out of there? At the time my oldest brother was actually already in the United States studying political science at Northeastern in Boston. So, he was able to vouch for us and get us out. We all went to live with him.
All of you moved in with your brother? Yes, 11 of us in his one bedroom basement apartment in Boston.
I take it your father spoke English? Yes, he actually came to the United States for officer training once a year, so he was a little familiar with the country.
How did you family make a life for themselves here? My father got a job selling insurance in Houston and my mom got a job working in a factory on an assembly line.
Did you see your parents struggle to adjust to life after fleeing their home country? There are some fundamental differences in how people operate from different cultures. The way the Vietnamese people handle trauma and difficulty - in my own humble opinion - is pretty simple: they had kids to feed and so they put one foot in front of the other. They never wallowed in self-pity.
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