University City

Finding Pho at Pho Real

Americans know pho as a classic Vietnamese dish. But this savory, comforting noodle soup is actually a stroke of entrepreneurial genius.

It owes its existence - as do so many things in the world of food - to the French. It's less than a century old, originating during the French colonial occupation of Indochina.

Street food vendors in Hanoi were wracking their brains trying to cook up a dish those rich expat cuisine snobs would try and buy.

Then someone noticed that the French ate cows, which the Vietnamese then mostly used to haul loads.

Imagine realizing you could get rich feeding your pickup truck to hungry aliens.

So pho was born. Some say the term derives from "pot au feu," the French rustic beef stew. It's pronounced "fuh," so the restaurant's name is a pun in English.

Pho became a hit. The Vietnamese-spiced beef-based broth with thin slices of choice beef, rice noodles and add-in veggies and bean sprouts spread throughout the country, spawning northern and southern versions and becoming a cherished breakfast dish.

Pho leapt the Pacific in the mid-1970s, after U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended and Vietnamese from the south immigrated to the U.S. They brought with them their more savory, complex version of pho. Pho became popular on the coasts and spread inland.

Now there are more than 2,000 pho restaurants in the States, and for U.S. pho fans, it's not just for breakfast anymore.

Fast forward again, this time to six years ago in Charlotte. Mecklenburg County had dismantled its unpopular trash incinerator project near UNC Charlotte, on prime real estate close to the corner of W.T. Harris Boulevard and Tryon Street. In its place, a shopping mall opened, with plenty of vacant space.

Enter a new generation of gifted entrepreneurs, Lian Gabriel and Mimi Vu.

Gabriel and Vu, classmates at UNC Charlotte, decided to bring real pho to Charlotte, setting up shop in the then-mostly-empty Promenade Mall.

Gabriel, a management major with a concentration in entrepreneurship, wrote Pho Real's business plan as the project for one of her classes. She still remembers her professor writing comments all over it in red ink. But she got an A. .

Given that Gabriel and Vu's brainstorm is still going strong after six years, in spite of rough economic times, I think these two young women and business partners deserve an A-plus.

Pho Real's food has a lot to do with their success. Pho Real, Gabriel emphasizes, is not Asian Fusion, but a true Vietnamese restaurant, with pho as the focus.

The pho menu lets you build a bowl to your own specs, picking your size from small to large and giving you a choice of meats and noodles. Or you can simply go with the most popular choice, pho dac biet.

The menu also features hu tieu, a pho-like soup based on chicken broth instead of beef, with a choice of various add-ins, including chicken, seafood, fish and pork.

For vegetarians, there's a full page of choices, including hu tieu chay, the veggie version of Vietnamese savory soup.

Pho Real also serves other typical Vietnamese dishes, such as com tam (broken rice) and banh xeo (Vietnamese savory crêpes).

It offers a long list of popular appetizers, including delicious spring rolls and egg rolls, in veggie and non-veggie versions, and a popular papaya salad.

The latest addition is a full line of bubble teas, most made from fresh or fresh-frozen fruits, and with a choice of exploding bubbles. Pho Real serves beer and wine and has a full bar.

Getting to Pho Real takes a little doing, unless you take the elevator.

It is up a long flight of stairs, which does help you work off some of the calories you're going to consume. Ground-floor restaurants have come and gone over six years, while Pho Real has thrived upstairs; that's a testament to the food and to the pleasant ambiance.

The interior is calm and pleasant, with soft green walls, dark wooden tables and booths, punctuated by blue glass lights. A collection of Vietnamese-themed paintings decorates the walls, some of them by Vu's father. Just inside the door, a painting portrays a young woman in traditional dress making pho in a big black pot over an open fire.

Gabriel, with fashion-model looks and CEO style, was born in Canada and grew up in Chapel Hill. Her family is from the Philippines; Vu's family is from Vietnam. Fashionably dressed, keeping an eye on everything from behind the bar, with a kitchen towel stuck in a back pocket of her stressed jeans, Gabriel embodies the smarts and hard work it takes to succeed as a small business owner.

She remembers when a journalist visited the restaurant without identifying herself.

When bottles moved on the bar, Gabriel recalls, she joked that maybe it was the ghosts from the graveyard in a wooded corner of the mall property.

The next thing she knew, a review appeared about her "haunted" restaurant.

"Actually," Gabriel says, rolling her eyes, "We have a 22-foot ventilation hood in the kitchen, right behind the bar. Sometimes it vibrates, making the bottles dance a little."

Unfortunately for fans of the paranormal, all you'll find at Pho Real is, well, for real. But that's great news for pho-loving University City foodies.