When a diner walks into the new location of Pho Viet’s, their eyes are drawn upward, toward appealing photos of several dishes on the extensive, affordable menu. Longtime regulars will notice that the restaurant has kept the numbers of the dishes the same over the years, so a No. 16 will still get diners a bowl of pho bo vien (pho with Vietnamese beef meatballs). Place an order at the counter, and the folks who have been working there for years will get to work preparing it. The food is then brought out to the table cafeteria-style on a tray, wholesome, satisfying food that Pho Viet’s customers have come to anticipate over more than 15 years of service.
It’s exactly what one would expect for a busy street like Commonwealth Avenue on the border of Allston and Brookline — on any given day one might find a lunch rush from people working nearby picking up their favorites, students coming in for a quick bite, or friends catching up over a meal. The community feel comes not only from the energy of the space and the people who come to enjoy the food but from the family who runs Pho Viet’s that welcomes customers in, giving suggestions on what to order and taking care of staff.
Qui Anh Tran is the matriarch behind years of steaming bowls of pho; cloudy, sweet sips of Vietnamese iced coffee; and satisfying bites of banh mi at the Allston mainstay. The menu has stayed consistent since the restaurant’s 2006 opening in the Super 88 food court, but the family story that brought it to where it is now goes much further back.
Qui Anh Tran has roots in a Cantonese-speaking area of Vietnam and spent a decade in a Thailand refugee camp prior to coming to the United States, where she worked as a chef in various Boston restaurants, including the now-closed New Dong Khanh in Chinatown. Elements of her experiences have made their way onto the Pho Viet’s menu, including the new Saigon noodles, a “pad thai in disguise” that brings her time in Thailand to the Vietnamese restaurant. Tran’s culinary knowledge developed over time, and she eventually got the opportunity to lead her own restaurant in Boston when the owners of Sugar Bowl, a Vietnamese restaurant at Super 88 where she was the chef, decided to leave. She talked her kids into opening Pho Viet’s in that very same location.
Since then, the second and third generations of Tran’s family have subsequently inherited and run Pho Viet’s. Dung and Hung Tran, Qui Anh Tran’s daughter and son-in-law, owned and operated Pho Viet’s for a number of years before the third generation took ownership and expanded. In 2019, Pho Viet’s II opened in Newton, owned by Kelly Tran, Dung and Hung Tran’s daughter.
Then, 2021 brought about an exciting change: The original location within the shared space of the Super 88 moved to its own space only two blocks away on Commonwealth Avenue. Now, with triple the space and the opportunity to make it their own, current co-owners Jenn Tin and Thanh Tran (Dung and Hung Tran’s son) are setting the ambiance — the music, temperature, and decor in the new space provide a level of comfort for both the customers and the staff — for the first time.
Pho Viet’s regulars Beau Cote and Taylor Ko, local Somerville residents, say that one of the biggest things that keeps them coming back to Pho Viet’s is the owners. “They remember us not just by name, but by who we are,” says Cote, who works near Pho Viet’s. To Cote and Ko, the fact that Tin and Tran will check in about how they are before taking their order is part of what makes Pho Viet‘s so welcoming.
Pho Viet’s feeling of familiarity has been cultivated over time. Tin, who has spent less time around Pho Viet’s than her husband — he has been helping out since it opened during his high school years — notes that previous owners Dung and Hung Tran, who remain very involved in the business, are always so excited to see their regulars. Dung Tran, Tin’s mother-in-law, knows her customers well: “Make sure you pack extra chile garlic — they’ve been here for 10 years, and that’s what they like,” Tin recalls her saying. Some of the longstanding relationships between the family and regulars have superseded language barriers, relying on just having known each other so long.
Tin is proud that Pho Viet’s can be a place for a date, a warm meal after a long day of work, or picking up dinner for one’s family. For longtime customer Brianna Wang, Pho Viet’s has been a family tradition for six or seven years, starting at the Super 88 location when her father would pick up takeout while going there for grocery shopping.
While Wang was initially disappointed to see that the old location had closed, she was glad to find that the restaurant had moved nearby into a standalone space. Not only could she still enjoy the food, but Wang says she was “happy for them that they are in such high demand that they are able to open their own place.” Wang’s favorite dishes are the spicy beef noodle soup and the short rib on rice.
According to Tin, some of the most popular dishes are pho and other soups, as well as the banh mi; for beverages, customers frequently order the Vietnamese coffee drinks and limeades.
Those who aren’t sure what to get can always ask for suggestions. Tin knows that while some people may be adventurous and others shy about trying out dishes, she likes that the menu is so broad that she can provide suggestions for anyone, especially given that many dishes cross cultures. “Maybe you’re not familiar with the pho ga, but chicken soup is chicken soup,” says Tin; she believes the dish can be a great option for customers newer to Pho Viet’s.
There’s peace of mind in ordering, knowing that this menu has been tried and true for more than a decade. Tin says that she just wants people to be comfortable. “I want [customers] to feel like they’re at their house, or saying hi to their aunt, or like you’re my little cousin.” At Pho Viet’s, comfort can come from both the kindness of the Pho Viet’s family, and from a warm bowl of pho.