Behind any steaming bowl of pho soup or fried rice at Pho Vietnam 8, a new Fireweed Lane restaurant, is Linda La, the mastermind behind the chain of Anchorage's Pho Vietnam restaurants.
Pho Vietnam 8 is actually the fifth venture, despite the name. In Vietnamese culture, the number eight is associated with wealth and prosperity. What about five, six and seven?
"Not so good," La said in her latest restaurant in early October.
La, 47, has founded about a half-dozen pho restaurants in Anchorage. While she no longer operates them all -- passing ownership of all but one off to members of her family -- the recipes, style and design are all hers. The chefs are all closely trained under her supervision and the sauces she developed, used for everything from pad Thai to spring roll dipping sauce, are made from secret recipes that she still prepares herself for each location.
After almost 20 years in business, La still works seven days a week. She's saved enough to buy the building her newest restaurant is housed in and send her two daughters to college. Still, she and her husband, Minh Tran, show up for work every day.
"I like to work, I like to cook," she said. "I'm not lazy."
Part of that is her passion for food. La loves to travel, and wherever she goes, she and her family seek out the best places to eat. Mexican cuisine, in particular, is a favorite.
A keen sense for business has also been instrumental in her success. Over the years, she's modified her Southeast Asian cuisine to American palates based on customer feedback. Her latest restaurant, for example, has a whole menu of vegetarian dishes based on local demand. In an effort to perfect it, she went back to Vietnam to study vegetarian cuisine with monks at a Buddhist temple in her hometown.
"I'm always looking at customers and trying to figure out what they like," she said.
The popularity of pho -- the traditional Vietnamese soup of rich broth, usually with rice noodles and meat -- has been on the rise in recent years. In 1995, it was rare enough that an Anchorage Daily News article heralded one of the first restaurants serving the dish (its headline: "At long last, real Vietnamese").
Since then, the cuisine's popularity has been on the rise, with 2008 marking a banner year for pho. La opened the first Pho Vietnam restaurant in June 2008 -- six months after Spenard's popular Pho Lena restaurant also opened its doors.
Of the 40 stories on pho in the Anchorage Daily News archives, about two-thirds were published after 2008.
According to the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services, today 16 restaurants have "pho" in the name, with many other Asian restaurants offering pho on the menu as well.
Coming to Alaska
La started Pho Vietnam as the cuisine was taking off but her success is about more than just lucky timing. Her younger sister, Lisa Lane, thinks it comes from a work ethic influenced by her immigrant roots.
Lane said that when the family came to Alaska from Vietnam, they spoke no English and had almost nothing. Even getting to Alaska was a 10-year process, hindered by the anti-American communist regime that took over the country after the Vietnam War. That anti-American sentiment affected La in other ways too. She was barred from getting a college education in Vietnam because her sister, Lane, has an American father.
"She always told me, 'I'm going to do it. I'm not going to settle for anything because we came here with nothing,'" Lane said. "(La said,) 'I'm going to make sure my kids have what I don't have.'"
La grew up in Vinh Long, in the southern part of Vietnam. In 1989, she immigrated to Anchorage, where her half-sister's father lived, along with her two sisters and mother.
She worked a number of jobs after coming to the U.S. She was a hairstylist, opened a nail salon and for a time worked as a "sky chef," catering airplane food.
But La's passion was preparing her native Vietnamese cuisine. Her cooking was influenced by her grandmother, who used to cater weddings and other special events in Vietnam. She said that gave her an innate sense of how to cook.
"It's in my brain already," she said. "I'm not scared to go into the kitchen."
La said that in the '90s, the Vietnamese community in Anchorage was small. With few Vietnamese restaurants and people craving homemade pho, she started hosting weekend lunches.
Pho, cooked all day in giant pots, is meant for sharing. What started as a gathering for family expanded to other members of the community. As the lunches grew, more people encouraged her to open a restaurant. So she did, opening Pho Saigon in the Dimond Center in 1999.
Lane, her sister, said that when it first opened, business was tough. The mall had strict hours that weren't ideal for the restaurant. In the early 2000s, pho was still catching on with the general Anchorage population. Lane, who worked as a server, said she often had to explain what the dish was to customers.
In 2004, La and her first husband divorced. Running the restaurant as a newly single mother of two was too much. So she sold it and went back to doing nails.
But La said that didn't make her happy. So in 2008, with the support of her second husband, she went back to pho, opening Pho Vietnam in a strip mall on Denali Street.
Since she opened Pho Vietnam, the popularity of pho has only increased. Her brother-in-law, Thomas Crandall, thinks Anchorage's love of pho stems from the city's cold, wet weather.
La understood that demand too and tried to devise a way to get the food across the city. That meant expansion. A second restaurant opened in Muldoon, a third in Government Hill and another in Jewel Lake. At each one, she would get things off the ground and then hand it over to a relative. Part of the hand-off includes training the chefs.
Jesus Gonzalez has worked with La for three years and she considers him her best chef. Gonzalez had years of experience cooking Mexican and American food but didn't know anything about cooking Vietnamese food before working with La. But she's a good teacher, he said, with a perfectionist's eye. Little things, like making sure each handful of rice noodles that goes into a bowl of pho is the right size (the size of La's small palm), were drilled into him.
And while she's shared many of her food tips, there's one she hasn't shared: how to make the sauces.
"It's her secret," he said. "She doesn't trust me yet."
La says she has no plans to stop working anytime soon but that Pho Vietnam 8 will be her last pho location. She's able to take care of her family, and after years of struggle, that's all she ever wanted to do in the first place.
"I'm so happy right now," she said. "I just want to do enough for my family. One more may be too much."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing