Phan Tran isn’t your average 63-year-old. While her friends are counting down the days until Social Security kicks in and making plans for a quiet retirement, she is hell bent on pursuing a lifelong dream of owning a restaurant. Together with her daughter Diana Du, a former teacher’s assistant, and Du’s boyfriend, Eric Chang, a former correctional officer, Tran opened Pho Ga District in Rosemead in 2017.
Investing hard-earned savings, along with additional funding from close family members, the trio have transformed a dingy space on San Gabriel Boulevard into a bright and well-appointed restaurant. On the menu at Pho Ga District are specialities from Hai Phong, a city in northeastern Vietnam with strong Chinese culinary influences.
While owning a restaurant is a new venture for Tran, the recipes that keep the crowds coming day in and day out are very much a part of her DNA. Growing up in Vietnam, Tran sold pho ga with her parents at their family’s stall at the corner of Tran Huong Dao and Dai Hanh. “I started selling pho ga when I was 14,” shares Tran. “We opened at 7 a.m. and closed around midnight.” While her siblings attended school, she spent long days at the restaurant learning the intricacies of the business, which imparted a formidable work ethic that has stayed with her long after those years.
Upon immigrating to the U.S. and settling in Lincoln Heights in the 1980s, she continued the culinary tradition at various restaurants around Los Angeles. Most recently, she spent a decade behind the stoves at El Monte’s Pho Hai Phong Noodles. But after 50 years of working for others, Tran is making the most of her golden years by taking charge in a kitchen all her own. “People recognize her and praise her food,” says Du. “She’s finally getting credit for her cooking.”
The restaurant’s foundational pho ga recipe comes from Tran’s father. “When I was helping my parents sell noodles, I slowly learned the recipe by watching them prepare everything,” explains Tran. Over time, she’s tweaked the broth to make it her own. “I am constantly changing it,” she says, “and when I get positive feedback, I keep going, but I always keep in mind what my father would have done.”
“I think what sets us apart from others is how clean the broth tastes and how perfectly the chicken is cooked,” beams Du. Pho Ga District takes great pride and a tremendous amount of time to create an exceptional noodle soup, because in a crowded market like the San Gabriel Valley’s, discerning diners can decide in an instant whether a bowl of pho is worthy of a repeat slurp.
“We usually start the broth around 7 a.m.,” explains Du. On her way to the restaurant each morning, she picks up freshly slaughtered chickens at nearby CAL Poultry (formerly known as Vikon) on Garvey Avenue. These chickens, which provide the base for many of the restaurant’s dishes, are free to roam and are organically fed. “My mom likes muscular chickens,” says Du.
The locally raised birds are fortified with a slew of aromatics including onions, fried shallots, rock sugar, fish sauce, ginger, and garlic. Tran patiently simmers and constantly tastes; after five painstakingly long hours, the soup is ready as the lunchtime crowd files in. “The most important step in preparing the pho ga is giving the chicken a proper cold-water bath and letting it cool down before serving,” says Du.
What makes Haiphong’s chicken noodle soup unique compared to those from other regions of Vietnam are the sauces served alongside. “We use ginger and vinegar, and we don’t put fish sauce in it,” explains Du. “Ours is a little different.” The restaurant goes through 15 pounds of fresh ginger each week.
With the lunchtime crowd settling in, a mix of office workers and local families, the faces look mostly familiar to Du. The restaurant’s early days saw an older crowd who learned of Pho Ga District through radio advertisements. Since then, strong word of mouth has attracted a diverse set of diners, including construction workers, fellow business and restaurant owners, and even curious residents from Orange County.
The focused menu contains just a dozen dishes, a succinct approach compared to competitors in the neighborhood. “We wanted it simplified and to not overwhelm everyone,” explains Du. “If the menu is smaller, we can put more attention into the dishes. It’s the same thing we eat at home.”
Most everyone orders the bestselling pho ga, but a few venture toward sleeper hits, like the bun mang vit, a fantastically flavorful noodle soup made with duck and bamboo shoots. There’s also banh cuon, wonderful steamed rice-flour crepes stuffed with ground pork and reconstituted wood-ear mushrooms that’s eaten with a fish-sauce vinaigrette, julienned cucumbers, and steamed bean sprouts.
Just as Tran learned recipes and techniques from her father as a teenager, Du and Chang are doing the same today. Slowly but surely, the next generation will take over the restaurant and continue the foodways anew. “She’s a little controlling in the kitchen,” laughs Du. “But we’re gradually learning. I’ve learned the fillings for egg rolls and banh cuon, all of these processes, how to wash everything properly, how to season… the only thing we need to learn is the soup base.”
For now, though, the trio couldn’t be more content with the way things are. There’s a freedom and satisfaction to owning a restaurant that just can’t be beat. “I love putting all my energy into our little store,” says Tran.
The restaurant is open Fridays through Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and is closed on Thursdays.
Pho Ga District. 3119 North San Gabriel Boulevard, Rosemead, CA 91770.