With two popular restaurants called Ronnie, the name has become somewhat synonymous with sushi in Anchorage.
Ronnie Lee, who opened Ronnie Sushi on Jewel Lake Road seven years ago and Ronnie 2 on Muldoon Road in late 2010, said fish remains his favorite food. But thanks in part to his Vietnamese mother-in-law, dishes like pho are a close second.
"I love noodles," Lee said.
When the restaurant space connected to Jewel Lake Bowl became available, his mother-in-law prodded him to combine his flair in the kitchen with the recipes from her homeland.
Soon after, Pho King was open, with Lee providing a unique twist to bowling alley fare and, he hopes, competition to the wave of Vietnamese soup restaurants that have opened in the last five years.
Lee, who moved to Alaska 13 years ago, was familiar with the bowling alley space since it is across the parking lot from his first eponymous sushi spot and wanted to take a chance with what he calls "casual Vietnamese" dining.
"Food is the focus," said Lee, who trained Pho King's kitchen staff. "It's my experiment. I want to try something different."
To Lee, that means blending Thai, Korean, Japanese and Chinese flavors into all the dishes on the menu. It also means affordable prices and big serving sizes; Lee claimed he's unconcerned with making much of a profit at this point. The restaurant also offers typical bowling alley fare - burgers, pizza, fries, etc. - to please the kegling crowd.
Lee said he arrived at the rather risque restaurant name ("pho" is pronounced similarly to "fuh") because "pho is a poor, peasant food and king is the best, No. 1." He was coy as to whether he was initially aware of the potential profanity of the name but is pleased that it draws attention.
"Everybody listens one time and they remember the name," he said.
On a Tuesday at lunch time, my girlfriend and I arrived to find the small dining area nearly empty. After being greeted by a cheery server, we decided to share the beef combo pho ($10) and an order of the bulgogi beef ($12).
The walls, painted in bright tones, featured flowery stained-glass art and a flat-screen TV played a subtitled station featuring a program on hair plugs -- a bit off-putting. A pair of double doors opened occasionally to the cacophony of the bowling pins falling.
Quicker than expected, a big bowl of pho arrived at the table along with a plate of herbs and a side of kimchi. The savory broth, a bit on the timid side, was packed with slender rice noodles, all sorts of cow parts -- thinly sliced steak and meatballs, bits of chewy tendon and fat or shreds of chewy tripe -- and however much fresh basil and cilantro, bean sprouts, spicy chili oil and Sriracha our hearts desired.
Not long after, we were enjoying the garlic-soy notes of the bulgogi, which was a bit greasy, balanced out by chopstick grabs of sticky rice and swabs of Sriracha. Despite a generous portion, it didn't take us long to devour it. We weren't, however, able to finish the pho and took nearly half to go.
I came back the next night with my three roommates for dinner. We quickly settled on two ubiquitous Asian dishes: chicken pad Thai ($10) and the kalbi ribs ($13) but were most intrigued by the Pho King burger ($10), a bacon cheeseburger with teriyaki chicken, listed on the specials.
The pad Thai, with a tomato tang to the sauce, was heaped high on the plate but didn't hit home with our group. The rice noodles were joined by bean sprouts, onions, egg, peanuts and bell pepper slices. Most disappointingly, the dish was short on chicken, and what was there was rather dry.
Always a favorite of mine, the 10 or so ribs were sweet, garlicky and tender. Like the bulgogi, they didn't last long but there was one that was almost entirely unappetizing fat.
My roommates and I have been somewhat fascinated by the Internet food meme that combines McDonald's McChicken inside a McDouble and felt that the Pho King burger was an Asian spin on the customer creation. The special burger turned out to be a disappointment in execution and ingredients. The store-bought sesame bun held rubbery bacon, a slice of American cheese and a decent burger patty and two teriyaki-slathered chicken breast pieces, which were dry and over-cooked.
At the end of both meals, the server brought us complimentary whipped-cream-topped deep-fried tempura Oreos. It was a nice touch of hospitality but not enough to send us home impressed.
At this point, I'm not a big Pho King fan. The ups and downs make its off-the-beaten-path location an inconvenient and risky journey considering other established pho options exist.
If I'm bowling, I'll happily indulge in a bowl of pho rather than some chicken fingers. And Lee's involvement plus the promise of an evolving menu gives the restaurant hope to emerge from its growing pains and warrants another visit down the line. Maybe then I'll be bowled over.
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By Barry Piser
Anchorage Daily News