Chef Chat, Part 1: Van Pham of Phamily Bites Food Truck
There are at least 20 gourmet food trucks in Houston at the moment, many of them manned by young entrepreneurs, while others are extensions of brick and mortar businesses.
Photo by Mai Pham Van Pham in front of his Phamily Bites food truck. Their motto is "get pho c'upd"
Phamily Bites is the first gourmet food truck in Houston to sell Vietnamese food, and its specialty is pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup). We caught up with owner and chef, Van Pham, a few days before his one-year anniversary celebration.
EOW: How did you get into the food truck business?
VP: I am from Houston originally. I grew up in Alief. I moved to San Francisco six or seven years ago. About a year ago, I moved back to Houston because my family is still here, and when I decided to move home, I wanted to do something different.
EOW: What were you doing before?
VP: I was working in telecommunications. I was a T-Mobile account executive, so this is completely different for me.
EOW: Do you have a culinary background?
VP: No, I don't.
EOW: But you created the menu, right?
VP: Yes, all the menu is me. I designed the menu. The recipes, some of them I created myself, but the majority of my culinary skills I got from my mom and my grandmother. They taught me when I was younger. I just enjoy cooking.
EOW: Have you been cooking all your life, then?
VP: Yeah, pretty much. I've been on my own since I was 16, so I had to learn to cook on my own. It's funny because my mom's retired now, but she actually has her own cooking show on a Vietnamese TV station. It's on Direct TV, I think it's called "Hon Viet."
EOW: What are some of the things you remember cooking growing up?
VP: There are a lot of things I remember cooking, like bun rieu(tomato and crab rice vermicelli soup), bun thang (rice vermicelli soup with chicken, egg, and pork), you know, the traditional Vietnamese stuff. My mom taught me how to make banh cuon (rolled cakes) and cha gio(egg rolls). It's very tedious work, and a lot of preparation, but I really enjoy it. I mean, cooking at home is fine, but on the truck I had to make a condensed menu and make something easier. I mean, I'm pretty ambitious trying to make pho on the truck, but...
EOW: Do you make the pho on the truck?
VP: Yes, everything I do I have to cook on the truck, I have to prep on the truck.
EOW: Are there rules around that?
VP: Yes, there are rules around that in Houston. You're not allowed to cook at home and bring it on the truck. The only thing you're allowed to do is either cook on the truck or at a city-approved commissary -- that's where we park our truck and clean the truck. So I generally bring everything on the truck and prep for service. So I prep everything on the truck and cook the pho on the truck.
EOW: How many bowls can you make in one sitting?
VP: A pot holds about 100 bowls.
EOW: And how long does that last?
VP: It depends on the days. On weekends, I can go through that. On weekdays, I go through 20 or 35 bowls for lunch, which is pretty great.
EOW: Do you throw it out if you don't sell it all?
VP: No, I can keep it, because the flavor keeps on adding. That's the thing about pho, the longer it keeps, the better it tastes. The difference between me and a lot of restaurants it that they take out the "nuoc beo," which is the fat. I leave it in there because I don't have the luxury of a commercial fridge, so on my truck, the fat congeals on top to protect the soup.
EOW: Your main thing is obviously pho. How difficult is it to sell during the summer?
VP: The funny thing is, last summer, we did pretty well with the pho. We would sell 20 or 30 bowls. Ironically, during the winter, I only sold about 10 per day. I can't explain why I sell less in the winter. The only thing I can think is that it's cold and people would rather be inside than waiting outside in line.
EOW: What other things do you do that are popular?
VP: The most popular thing on my truck right now is my mom's egg rolls. My mom's pork and shrimp egg rolls and her vegetarian egg rolls. My mom actually makes it for me every night, and I take it on the truck and fry it in the fryer. We sell five per order, and we cut them in half, so it's 10 pieces per order, and they're not small egg rolls. We've had several articles written about those egg rolls. People know about them, and they come out and say "Hey, we're here to try your mom's egg rolls."
EOW: So, the pho recipe, is it yours or hers?
VP: It's a combination of both. I kind of added a few things in it, a few more spices and technique to make it more flavorful.
EOW: Question, when you go to a restaurant, you can choose different meats. How does that work on your truck?
VP: I kind of stick with the basics, which is pho tai (thinly sliced beef), or pho bo vien (beef balls), or a combination of both, to keep it simple. I don't want to be too exotic, because my demographic might not be too receptive to things like tendon or tripe. Also, we don't have the storage on the truck to keep things that don't sell well, and tai and bo vien sell pretty quickly.
Check back with us tomorrow as Pham shares some of challenges of owning a food truck in Houston.
Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords