If you drive by Huong Vietnamese Restaurant on Morse Road, you’ll see their window filled with a black sign: “Sorry We’re Closed.” The lights are off; the usual lunch rush, gone.
“You don't realize what a loss something is until it’s not there, I suppose,” says Andy Dehus, part of the couple behind Columbus Food Adventures.
Diaz and his wife Bethia Woolf were frequent customers of Huong – one of about a dozen Vietnamese restaurants in Columbus. To them, Huong was on a whole other level, and not just because of the food it serves.
“I would say it’s a beloved institution, both in the neighborhood and city-wide,” Woolf says.
Woolf says Huong enjoyed a large following in the Vietnamese community and in the surrounding Northland area, and people made pilgrimages there from all around Central Ohio.
Since the beginning of the year, though, the popular Vietnamese restaurant on Columbus’ North Side has been shuttered while the chef recovered from an injury. Now that she’s back on her feet, Huong Vietnamese plans to reopen on May 2, much to the excitement of its fans.
Before Huong Pham immigrated to America, she owned a restaurant in Biên Hòa, in suburban Saigon, as did her brother, whose phở recipe was legendary around town. When Pham arrived in Columbus in 1998, starting a restaurant here seemed like an obvious choice.
“Coming here, with the language barrier and everything, she wanted to revert back to what she knows: food, it brings everyone to the same table,” said her daughter Twee Win, who translated for Huong. “You don’t need to speak the same language to eat the same food.”
With her four daughters handling the paperwork and licenses, Pham took over this restaurant from a friend in 2008.
“When we first opened, we were basically one of only three Vietnamese restaurants in town, the other being Mei Lee on 161 here, and IndoChine,” Win said.
Soon after they opened, Pham invited her cousin – who owns a Vietnamese restaurant in Austin, Texas – to visit and teach her recipes. For the phở, a beef noodle soup, she combined her cousin’s recipe with her own and with the recipe of a friend.
“So she had three recipes to work from and omitted what didn’t work and what she didn’t like, to come to one more rounded, more combined recipe that we have today,” Win said.
Over the last decade, Huong Vietnamese made its name with phở and other Vietnamese staples like bún, a rice noodle salad. But Pham makes a point to regularly change the menu, adding specials she learned from trips back home.
“Cuisine in Vietnam, it evolves too,” Win says. “It’s fun to see how traditional food is being modernized and evolve.”
Dehus and Woolf rave about rarer dishes that only Huong serves locally, such as bánh xèo, a crepe filled with pork and shrimp.
They're also famous for the size of their bánh mì, a grilled pork or chicken sandwich served on a foot-long baguette. Win says they introduced it as an experiment, but now “it’s gotten trendy.”
“Phở number one, bánh mì number two,” Pham says.
Her success came to a crashing halt last December. Pham was shopping at an Asian supermarket to prep for the coming week when she tripped on the edge of a wooden box lining the checkout aisle.
“Down she went, and she thought it was like maybe a sprain or some bruises, but an hour later it was excruciating,” Win says.
Just after Christmas, Huong underwent surgery for a fractured knee and was hospitalized for several days. Physical therapy would require another few months out of work.
Like many family-owned immigrant restaurants, Huong Vietnamese only has the one chef: Huong Pham herself. She says she's tried to train other cooks in the kitchen, but none can keep up or meet the quality she expects.
“Every time that happens, we have people ask, ‘Is the chef new? Did you guys change your recipe?’” Win says. “She didn’t even consider it for this time.”
Win says that Pham is a busy-body and usually moves nonstop. While she missed the income from the past four months, the hardest part has been the boredom.
“It’s been quite a culture shock for her to sit at home and do basically nothing,” Win says.
In the few months Huong was out of commission, the restaurant hasn't been forgotten. Win has kept their Facebook and Instagram followers up-to-date on Pham’s progress, and many customers wrote in to express joy about her recovery.
“I’d be happy to pay 10 percent more to have you back serving food,” wrote Jon Ulmer.
“My husband and I cannot wait, so glad she is recovering so well,” commented Adria Jerman.
To Dehus and Woolf, who plan to be there reopening week, the huge show of support comes as no surprise.
“Restaurants aren’t just about the food,” Woolf says. “They’re about the food and the people and the atmosphere, and there’s just something just warm and quirky about Huong.”