Loyal customers come running back to My Tho

Not many restaurants can shut their doors for a couple of months on a semi-regular basis and expect customers to come running back when they reopen.

Then again, not many restaurants dish up a bowl of soup like My Tho, a former pool hall on the edge of downtown that’s built a devoted following.

“Honestly, we used to worry,” Phung Van, whose parents own the business, said of closing for family trips to Vietnam. “But now it’s like we have faith in our customers. It’s great. As soon as we open we have customers.”

On a typical weekday, the unassuming eatery at Central and Emporia fills with office workers, students, cops, nurses, doctors and others lapping up pho, banh mi, cafe sua and other Vietnamese fare. Sundays are the busiest day of all, a mix of families stopping in after church services and hipsters recovering from Saturday night’s party.

Lemongrass and star anise scent the air. Phung and the rest of the staff ferry food to the tables at a near jog.

My Tho is owned by Phung’s mother, Mai Vu, and father, Hai Van, who left Vietnam separately about a year after that country came under communist rule. Then teenagers, they underwent what Phung calls “the usual” harrowing experience of potentially untrustworthy ship captains and refugee camps.

“You pay with gold for a good chance to lose your life,” he said.

Phung’s parents met in an Indonesian refugee camp and pledged to keep in touch should they become separated. Hai made it to the United States first, eventually landing in Wichita. Mai’s foster family, in Georgia, bought her a plane ticket to Kansas so the couple could reunite.

“They still send Christmas cards – really good people,” Phung said.

Once in Kansas, Phung said, his parents worked the same jobs as many Vietnamese immigrants, including stints in a meatpacking plant in Dodge City. Then, in 1987, they bought Sang’s Billiards Hall, located on property now owned by Via Christi Hospital.

“I think they scraped together all the money they had,” said Phung, who was 2 years old at the time. “I’m like, ‘You guys took a lot of risk.’”

The food part of the business evolved gradually, as Phung’s parents added a few dishes to the sandwiches the pool hall had been serving.

Dislocated by a Via Christi expansion project, My Tho moved to its current spot and changed its name in 1995. My Tho is the name of a city south of the former Saigon that Hai is from (as well as the name of a pork noodle dish on the menu).

Given the reputation of My Tho today, it’s perhaps surprising that neither Mai nor Hai was a particularly skilled cook when they started. Phung said his parents took years to perfect their version of pho, the Vietnamese national soup that is the menu’s biggest seller. His parents are still the restaurant’s main cooks, making sure the pho and other dishes meet their exacting standards, and are rarely seen outside the kitchen.

For years, the restaurant’s customer base was almost all Vietnamese immigrants and other Asian immigrants, Phung said. Then about a decade ago, a few adventurous American-born eaters discovered it.

Word spread, and today customers are a diverse mix.

“The soups at My Tho are the ultimate comfort food,” said no less an authority on the subject than Tanya Tandoc, owner of Tanya’s Soup Kitchen. “I can never decide between the pho or the beef stew, so I get them both and take home leftovers.”

Phung and his older brother, Long, grew up helping in the restaurant, though it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they’d continue working there. Long earned a degree in entrepreneurship from Wichita State, Phung a degree in business. A third brother, Ngoc, is an electrical engineer who occasionally helps out as well.

While talking to his parents one day, Phung said, “I just realized, ‘You don’t want to quit this, do you?’ It’s kind of like their baby.”

Phung said it wasn’t too hard a decision for him to remain in the restaurant business.

“All I see is friendly faces,” he said. “Everybody is happy to eat here. How can you not like that?”

But faithful customers dread the hand-lettered sign that goes up on the door of My Tho every other year or so – the one announcing that the restaurant is closing while its proprietors visit family in Vietnam.

“The only reason why we close is the grandparents in Vietnam,” Phung said. “You have to go see them as much as you can before you cannot.”

Two years ago, the restaurant closed for renovation, reopening without the last of the pool tables and with about 80 additional seats. Phung said he and his brother pushed for the expansion, quickly adding, “Dad’s the guy that makes the decisions. I just give my advice.”

Plans call for Long and Phung to take over the restaurant in another year, although Phung said his parents will still be involved, making sure the pho recipe is followed.

“I don’t have it yet,” Phung said with a smile. “One day when I have it, I’ll let you know.”