Some men might not want to admit stopping into their parents’ house on a regular basis for a home cooked meal, but Ty Nguyen said he regularly goes to his parents’ house for lunch and dinner.
Nguyen said the reason for all his mealtime visits is that his mom, Cam Loan Nguyen, is a great cook. Nguyen said that’s why he asked his mom to come out of retirement and take on the role of head chef of Pho 616, which opened in August in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market.
“I knew she’d be perfect to be our head chef,” he said. (Nguyen’s parents and grandparents ran a Vietnamese restaurant located along 28th Street for several years.)
Nguyen opened Pho 616 with business partner Han Lee after the two realized there weren’t any Vietnamese restaurants downtown. The pair wanted to create a menu focused on traditional Vietnamese foods, but made to go. “You get the home cooked meal but in the to-go concept,” he said.
Pho 616 offers a limited menu that includes pho, bánh mì, spring rolls and Vietnamese iced coffee.
Nguyen instructed his mom to cook exactly like she does at home. He said the restaurant’s focus is on quality and freshness, which means menu items are made fresh daily.
He noted one big difference in Pho 616’s approach to pho broth is it’s missing a typical ingredient. “How my mom cooks our pho is different from others,” Nguyen said. “She doesn’t cook with MSG and that’s something that is huge to our community. Anyone who is health oriented knows it’s bad for you. She hasn’t cooked with MSG in years.”
While pho can be made with chicken or tofu, Nguyen said Pho 616 sticks to the traditional beef broth version, using flank steak and steamed beef balls. “Those are the two meats we put into ours and the beef stock. Then we add the bean sprouts, Thai basil leaves and lime.” He said the result is “sweet, sour and spicy all in one bite.”
Nguyen said he wants people to enjoy a great meal, but he also hopes Pho 616 helps educate customers about Vietnamese culture. He noted the foods Pho 616 offers are traditional street foods in Vietnam and were once considered peasant fare.
But he also noted pho has become trendy in the United States recently and people are quickly becoming addicted to it, sometimes stopping in multiple times a week for a heaping bowl of the comfort food.
“It’s a great dish for a pick me up,” he said. “It’s great if you are feeling down or sick, because it has a lot of spices, herbs and proteins. It’s a great hangover food, too.”
Nguyen said he’s enjoying working side-by-side with his mom. He is learning from her and will eventually take over cooking duties.
For now, Cam Loan Nguyen is happy to be back in the kitchen. Through Nguyen, she expressed her gratefulness for the opportunities her family has had since immigrating to the United States and expressed her desire to give back through cooking.
“She’s proud we started this up and she wants to give back to the community,” Nguyen said.