IPho owner Van La learned the restaurant ropes at an early age.
Growing up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, she spent much of her childhood learning to run her parent's restaurant. When La left her native Vietnam for Charlotte, she brought the family business — and a vision of authentic Vietnamese cuisine — with her. After two years of searching for the right location, that vision finally found a home on Park Road.
"We had been looking for the right spot for a long time," La's partner, Hien Ly, explained as we sat down over a few bowls of steaming pho broth at the newly opened iPho. La doesn't speak English, so Ly translates. "We went through five different locations before we found this place."
The currrent spot was previously Dragonfly, a popular Chinese eatery that was looking to relocate. Ly and La bought the property and began converting the space — "a long and tedious six months," said Ly.
Though iPho opened in May, Ly said some diners are still adjusting, and many customers still come in looking for Chinese fare.
"Even though it's the same facility, our menu is strictly Vietnamese," Ly stressed. "We don't try to cross it with anything else. It doesn't make sense. That's not our specialty."
So what is the specialty? Ly pointed to the restaurant's namesake pho, a Vietnamese soup made with a hearty stock, vermicelli noodles and other add-ons (meats, vegetables).
"It all starts with the stock," Ly said. "It's about an 18-hour process to cook the broth. It's about letting it cook throughout the day, watching it. It takes a lot of patience. Vietnamese cuisine is similar to French; it's a slow-cook process. There's nothing quick about it."
"You should smell it as soon as it gets to your table," Ly explained as she introduced iPho's two homemade soup stocks: beef and chicken (a vegetable-based broth is also available for vegetarians). "You should taste all the different flavors in the first initial sip. That's the key."
Steam coiled over the hot broth, carrying the rich aroma that Ly described — notes of cinnamon, ginger, onion and cloves. Tasting the broth, I found it as complexly flavorful as it was aromatic; equally unique and comforting. (Added bonus: "It's really good for a hangover!" Ly says).
"The way everybody else makes their broth, they try to cater to the American palate," Ly said. "They don't understand that Americans could really appreciate the full-flavored broth the way it's supposed to be. The way you cook at home is the way you should cook in a restaurant. We're taking the family recipe and putting it in our kitchen, not modifying it. Yes, it's a little pungent and a little different, but it's supposed to be like that."
"Our pho is really authentic," Ly said. "When you taste it, you taste that authentic flavor."
Who better to accomplish that vision of authenticity, than La's own family? When she opened iPho, La recruited her sister and brother-in-law to work in the kitchen. Sharing La's restaurant roots, they were the right people for the job.
"They all ran restaurants, even as kids," Ly said. "It's a family-run event back there in our kitchen!"
At iPho, consistency is just an important as flavor. "The kitchen has to taste every new batch of stock we make, to make sure the flavor is there," Ly said. "We'll forego availability if we need to. Consistency is that important to us."
Pho is the obvious star of the show, but Ly is quick to point out other menu options that may help former Dragonfly customers transition to Vietnamese cuisine. "We have stir fry they can try. Vermicelli would be the first stop; that's what Vietnamese food is all about. From a wet format to a dry format, vermicelli with some meat and sauce on top is the standard dish."
"People don't have to adjust," Ly added. "The biggest challenge is telling people we aren't Dragonfly. Once they sit down and try our food, they love it."
Pork grilled banh mi is already a top seller. A Vietnamese-style chow fun served with stir-fried rice noodles, vegetables and meat is both colorful and delicious, and the braised chicken is a family recipe — "something she grew up making," Ly said, "an every-day dish, something we eat on a daily basis in some format."
Besides a painstaking dedication to consistency and authenticity, another labor of love was selecting wines and beers to pair with the menu.
"We wanted to make sure we took our time tasting everything, to make sure it pairs correctly," Ly said, sharing their menu of beers, wines, sakes and cocktails. "That's something a lot of clients are giving us a high five for."
Though beer enthusiasts will find an eclectic mix of local and regional (Mother Earth, Unknown) and imported (Laotian Beerlao) brews on the menu, it may take a while before any Vietnamese staples make the list. "We are having a hard time sourcing Vietnamese beers," Ly said. "You can get it, but not through the normal channel."
They may be new to Park Road, but iPho is quickly developing a fanbase. "We have a lot of clientele that have been all over the place, and they say our pho is the best," Ly said of their attention to detail and flavor. "We're really proud of what we do. We put a lot of love into it."