A building quietly and humbly took shape on the corner of Mesa and Paisano street over the last couple of months. The project would later reveal itself to be a Vietnamese restaurant-Pho So, downtown’s newest culinary addition. Owner Hugh Zheng sat with the INSIDER to discuss his family’s newest restaurant and why downtown was the location of choice.
Mr. Zheng, a youthful business owner moved from Hong Kong, China with his family in 1995 to live in New York. His family relocated to upstate New York shortly thereafter to open a small Chinese kitchen with take-out food.
“I was able to taste and try a lot of different foods while in New York and learned a lot working in the restaurant in Buffalo, New York,” said Zheng.
The family moved once again to El Paso in 2001 and has lived here since, “The first restaurant our family opened in El Paso was the Hong Kong Buffet,” said Zheng.
Over the years, the Zheng family opened the Hong Kong Buffet, Hong Kong Express (601 S. El Paso st.) and now Pho So Vietnamese Cuisine in downtown, El Paso. As a successful chef himself, Zheng has a knack for picking out the distinctive flavors that set apart a good dish from a great one.
“The original owner of the Pho So is Vietnamese and started the restaurants in California. After five generations of business he was ready to sell and move back to Vietnam,” said Zheng, adding, “At the time there were only two Vietnamese restaurants in El Paso besides Pho So and after eating his food I tasted a difference!” This admiration of the food quality and interest in opening a new restaurant prompted Mr. Zheng to take the reins from the prior owner of Pho So.
Zheng purchased the Montwood location of Pho So shortly thereafter and ultimately chose to open a spot downtown.
The new location is one of the first locally owned restaurants to straddle the culturally rich shopping district south of Paisano and the developing business and arts districts to the north of Paisano in an area full of corporate fast food franchises. The inside of the restaurant has a contemporary design without detracting from the cultural theme. There is ample seating capable of handling the expected lunch rushes with a generous view of the busy streets that flank the restaurant. Emerald colored bamboo lines the walls and a large impressive painting of what can only be a peaceful Vietnamese field hangs at the end of a row of booths.
“We love Chinese food but there is too much competition and even though Chinese food is healthy we felt that Vietnamese food is even more healthy,” said Zheng
The food itself definitely stands out from the standard Americanized Asian choices we are accustomed to at most El Paso restaurants. Some education is imparted by servers when a customer dines at the restaurant for the first time. According to the owner, there is a way to maximize the experience by eating the food a certain way. The food choices are traditional Vietnamese dishes and in the case of the egg rolls for example, one is asked to wrap the egg roll in the leaf of lettuce and load it with the carrot and lettuce shavings. Then dip it in fish sauce giving it a crispness with a subtle sweet and tart flavor.
The spring rolls are perfect for summer. The unique texture of the rice paper is a perfect complement to the fresh ingredients inside and can be ordered with a variety of meats like shrimp, pork and chicken.
“We love fried foods but in serving fresh Vietnamese food we are offering that option to customers who want healthier food-the future is more health minded. I’m very willing to pay more for chemical free food and use it so I’m certain customers are willing to pay to give the same quality to their family,” said Zheng.
The rice noodle soup is impressive. The broth is boiled anywhere from 11 to 18 hours in meat and bones to create a rich stock. The rice noodles sit quietly under the steaming broth and the dish can be ordered with brisket, rare steak or tripe. Zheng explains that the flavors can be altered in several ways by simply spritzing fresh lemon on the soup, adding spices or by adding a few small Thai bay leaves. These small leaves can impact the flavor profile significantly-push them beneath the noodles in the soup and allow the heat to activate the flavors.
This dependence on heat to activate a variety of flavors allows customers to customize their own dish at the table when ordering soups. “We don’t deliver some of these soups, we feel that the food is better if you order in,” said Zheng.
Mr. Zheng explains why he chose downtown as his newest location, “We saw the foot traffic and wanted to open a place people could enjoy good Asian food, a better option without having to drive elsewhere.”
“We are seeing that our customers are City employees, other business owners, and business men. We get shoppers too-this is a higher level of service and quality,” said Zheng.
Pho So is only a few blocks away from most parts of downtown with a parking lot for anyone that prefers to drive. Doors are open for business, but the grand opening is being held off until the staff is properly trained to maintain a level of service and quality that satisfies ownerships standards.
“We believe in our food and know people will return as long as they try it once. We also believe in downtown. It is growing and will change for the better,” said Zheng.
For more information 915-351-2356
301 Paisano, El Paso, TX 79901