Editor’s Note: In Vietnamese culture, pho is a staple – a warming bowl of noodle soup that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. A humble meal, it’s at the heart of Little Saigon’s food scene. This year, one noodle house made culinary history as the first Orange County restaurant recognized by the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars of the food world. Pho 79 is one of five restaurants to be honored this year with the America’s Classics Award which honors “locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are cherished for quality food reflecting the character of their community.” Pho 79 is family-owned restaurant in Garden Grove.
Contrary to former thought, these numbers are not random at all. Many people eat at these restaurants as comfort food or for a trendy Instagram post, without knowing the significance behind the double digits. The numbers represent the history of war and sacrifice, hidden in plain sight for this popular cuisine in Los Angeles.
The number can be personal to the owners by representing the year the shop opened. After nearly a decade of hard work and savings, Tiffany Nguyen’s mother opened Pho 86 in Westminster in 1986. She left Vietnam in 1977, after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
“My mom (Monica Nguyen) opened [Pho 86] to support her family,” said Tiffany, 43.
Monica, 65, is from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and finished her college education there, but saw more opportunity in Southern California. She saved enough money to open a family coffee shop before starting Pho 86.
Other pho restaurants with titles ending in 79, 54, and 45, have cultural, political, and historical meanings, respectively.
“Some people think [pho] comes from Chinese food,” said University of California, Los Angeles Vietnamese literature professor Chuc Bui.
But he, himself, immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam and said the story of the soup derives from a Vietnamese servant and a French man that came to Hanoi. The French man missed his food in France, especially the warm soup. So the servant tried to make pho familiar for him.
The story says the name “pho” came from the idea of the “fire” that warmed the soup, said Bui.
Pho was created at the beginning of the 20th century when French colonials in Vietnam craved steak. The colonials slaughtered cows, leaving the bones and tough cuts for the locals.
Local Vietnamese people found a way to save the flavor of the leftovers by boiling the bones into broth. They added noodles and thinly sliced beef to sell on the streets for an affordable price. Its popularity spread from Hanoi (in the north) to Saigon in the south.
“[Pho] is not Chinese, and not French. It belongs to Vietnamese taste,” said Bui.
After Bui finished his studies at Saigon University, he came to Southern California in 1978 when Little Saigon in Westminster did not exist. Now Westminster is the third most heavily populated Vietnamese town in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, following San Jose and Garden Grove, respectively.
Bui said there was only one Vietnamese restaurant in Southern California at the time.
Now, Vietnamese cuisine is ubiquitous in Los Angeles and Orange County. Pho 86 and Pho 79 were located across the street from one another, while Pho 54 and Pho 45 were less than a mile down the road. More than 300,000 Vietnamese people reside in Orange County, alone, according to the L.A. Times.
The fall of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975 led to the rising population of Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S. The Migration Policy Institute said around 125,000 Vietnamese refugees came to America from U.S. sponsored evacuation.
Refugees were not only attracted to Southern California because of its good weather. “[California] was a dream. Vietnamese [people] made their own village…to keep the culture and language,” said Bui.
They stuck together and brought pho with them, as a reminder of home.
Some Pho 79 restaurants honor a famous pho restaurant in Vinh, Vietnam that had an address labeled “79” on the street, said Bui. Vinh is the largest economic and cultural city of central Vietnam.
But for others it’s family history. John Nguyen owns Pho 79 in Garden Grove. “79 is the year I came [to] this country,” he said.
Pho 54 represents the last year Vietnam was separated in two by the North and South before the Vietnam War (1955-1975), according to Bui. After the Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces captured Saigon (the South Vietnamese capital), the North and South were united under communist control.
Bui also says Pho 45 is a symbol of the 1945 famine in North Vietnam during World War II and Japanese occupation. Over two million Vietnamese died that year from starvation.
Sometimes employees will tell customers, “It’s a lucky number for Americans to remember,” said Tin Tshan, a server at Pho 54 in Garden Grove.
It’s easier to explain this way. But next time you see a number, think again. It’s possible it reflects people across time.
Asjia Garner is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.