When Gordon Pham set out to open his first restaurant in the heart of Little Saigon in 2015, he knew his pho recipe needed to stand out in the most crowded pho market in America. With a decades-old family recipe under his belt and a passion to share it with the world, Phoholic found its place among the neighborhood’s pho veterans, like Pho 79, the James Beard America’s Classics award recipient, and Pho 45, a critically lauded gem. After making its mark within the Vietnamese community, Pham opened a second location in 2021 at Rodeo 39 in Stanton, where he sells 1,000 bowls a day on average and twice as many on busier days. In less than a decade, Pham’s winning recipe and bold ambition made Phoholic a destination for pho fanatics; its third location opens in November at South Coast Plaza.
Even though Pham’s family owned a duo of pho restaurants for decades in Vietnam, they left those days behind them upon immigrating to the U.S. in 2010. But Pham, confident in his family’s recipe and curious about opening pho restaurants in Southern California, had other ideas. “I told [my family] that I wanted to introduce pho to everyone, not just the old-school Vietnamese community,” he says. While Pham was excited for the challenge, his parents were reluctant and instead took jobs in other kitchens while settling into life in America.
Pham first opened a boba shop to finance his pho restaurant dreams, selling the business as soon as he’d made enough money to take over a vacant restaurant on Bolsa Avenue. The mom-and-pop pho restaurants that succeed in Little Saigon tend to serve dishes beyond pho, but not at Phoholic. “People ask, ‘Why don’t you include other dishes on the menu?’” says Cathy Pham, Gordon’s wife. But Gordon refuses: “I want to focus on pho only,” he says.
Gordon designed the menu at Phoholic so that newcomers to Vietnamese food wouldn’t feel intimidated. The menu includes 16 varieties of pho: the Beginners bowl contains steak and brisket, the Adventures bowl is garnished with tripe, and the Holic bowl comes with beef shank and oxtail. “You can eat pho every day,” says Gordon. “There’s so many flavors and it’s not really heavy.” While the Everything bowl is the best-seller, Pham prefers his pho with chopped meat and tender brisket.
It’s Phoholic’s accouterments, like the leafy green herb ngo om (rice paddy herb), that sets the experience at Phoholic apart from other pho restaurants, says Gordon. “This is an ingredient you eat all the time with pho in Vietnam,” he says. “The ngo om costs more than the meat.” Though the rare herb blends in with the other greenery on the plate, its flavor stands out among the Thai basil, mint, and perilla, adding a burst of freshness that punctuates the meaty broth.
Gordon’s parents run Phoholic’s kitchens under his care. The elder Phams prepare the broth daily using beef bones broken down in-house and carefully sourced ingredients, like fish sauce and spices, that match the flavors they remember from Vietnam. The broth cooks for 14 hours and is served in metal bowls that keep the soup scorching-hot. (Pham is considering switching to melamine bowls, so that the broth stays warm even longer.)
The family’s decades-old recipe is solid, but Gordon insists on tinkering with it to make it even better. He’s played with using wagyu and more expensive cuts but the results were lackluster; the broth tasted too fatty and left an off-putting aftertaste. (“I tried it and it’s terrible,” he says.) Though the growing restaurant chain has found an audience, Gordon and Cathy say that Phoholic is still evolving. “We’re still changing to make the flavors more special and more unique,” Cathy says.
The upcoming South Coast Plaza location will serve the same menu as the first two, while the dining room will include movable partitions that allow guests to dine privately. This third location represents tremendous growth for the Phams, who never expected to serve pho stateside, let alone succeed like they have. “For a first-timer, no one would think to have enough money to open a restaurant,” says Cathy. “His family never thought about having something big, but in [Gordon’s] mind, he came into this world to make pho for people.”
If all goes well, the Phams want to open 10 Phoholics across Los Angeles, Texas, and beyond. Gordon even toys with the idea of developing an instant version for wholesale. But for now, his goal is to keep the flavors consistent across all three locations; a bowl at South Coast Plaza should taste exactly like the one served in Little Saigon. He also insists that every bowl of pho must be served within five minutes of a diner placing their order. These signature touches are critical for building the pho empire Gordon envisions. And he’s on his way: The caveman-like bone-in beef shank is naturally Instagram-ready; the brand has built a cult-like following on social media. Vietnamese celebrities, including the actor and comedian Trấn Thành, swing by the restaurant when visiting Southern California. More people are introduced to Gordon’s style of pho every day. It’s only a matter of time, he says, until everyone is a phoholic.