Not long ago in foodservice, menu trends were birthed in fine dining. Swaddled in white linen, if a dish had legs (figuratively speaking), it toddled off its lofty perch to win hearts and taste buds of souls frequenting lower-check-average dining operations. The Caesar salad is one of the best examples. Born in 1924 at an elegant restaurant in Tijuana, it crossed the border to be welcomed at an astonishing breadth of concepts in the U.S. Today it bears grape tomatoes and an endorsement by Paul Newman at the giant of quick-service restaurants, McDonald’s. Likewise, chicken Florentine used to be presented on a bed of spinach and topped with Mornay sauce in only the highest falutin’ places, and you’ll still find it there. But it’s also a sandwich (grilled or crispy and topped with Swiss cheese) at Fuddruckers.
The notion that a bona fide food trend can take flight only from the platform of fine dining was challenged everlastingly by the advent of the wrap sandwich. What put the wrap on the map was its explosive popularity in the quick-service Mexican segment about a decade ago. Now everywhere and, speaking virtually, every tongue. Even The Ritz-Carlton, Chicago, rolls out the red carpet for the wrap sandwich, evidenced by seared ahi tuna, a slaw of daikon and Napa cabbage, and soy/miso dressing in a flour tortilla on The Café menu. The wrap proved forever that a real menu trend, thanks to Americans’ eternal search for something novel but practical (not to mention tasty and affordable), can trickle up as well as down.
Enter pho (pronounced “fuh”). It’s an understatement to say that this Vietnamese soup characterized by steaming-hot broth with rice noodles is hard to find; relatively speaking given the number of restaurants operating in the U.S., it’s hardly anywhere. But where it plays, it’s huge.
Just ask Tom Bird. The brains behind single-unit, fast-casual Pho Fusion Asian in Denver believes pho is about to take Americans’ taste buds by storm, so he’s in expansion mode. There’s also Mai Pham, whose phos served at the casual cousin to her award-winning restaurant in Sacramento, California, inspired bases bearing her name from Campbell Soup Company-owned StockPot. Pho is called something less exotic at Big Bowl, a fast-casual Chinese/Thai concept based in Chicago, and it’s the best-selling soup in some markets.
So enamored with pho is Los Angeles-based Internet marketer Tom Nguyen that his Web site, www.PhoFever.com, strives to list every restaurant serving pho in America, including units owned by the larget pho chain in the world, Pho Hoa—founded in San Jose, California, in 1984 and today boasting 40 units in North America and 35 units collectively in Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and the Philippines. Nine units of Pho Hoa are scheduled to open on both continents within the next year. Music executive Jim Griffin even credits pho for the latest developments in digital MP3 technology thanks to “pho kitchen” clatches that he launched in Los Angeles in 1998 and today regularly draw music techno-heads together worldwide.