Longtime Encinitas businessman Tam Dang has changed his focus from photos to pho.
The former owner of One Hour Photo opened Pho-Ever in this coastal city last June, bringing authentic Vietnamese cuisine crafted from his wife’s recipes. It’s the second restaurant for Dang, who set up his flagship Pho-Ever location in Vista after the photo processing industry began to fold due to the advances in digital imagery.
“You can’t e-mail food to friends”" Dang said of making the switch in careers.
The fact that Dang is familiar with overcoming adversity likely plays a role in his success story. His life today is a contrast from several decades ago, while living in Vietnam: He had been a law student, and a cameraman for a private educational Jesuit TV station. His family was heavily tied with South Vietnam, as three of his brothers and three brothers-in-law were officers.
But with the fall of Saigon in 1975 and South Vietnam under Communist rule, Dang’s world was in turmoil. He changed his name, and tried to escape the country several times by boat, each time landing in jail.
Persistence paid off, though, and Dang finally succeeded when he escaped by land, in 1982. He spent several years in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, and qualified to be relocated to the United States in 1986.
Upon arrival in the United States, Dang lived in Valencia and attended school for a year at College of the Canyons. Eventually, he moved south to Santee Lakes, where his sister and brother-in-law owned a concessions and boat rental facility, and he worked there as general manager for a few years.
With management experience under his belt, Dang made his way up the San Diego coastline and embraced the role of entrepreneur. He was the owner of Postal Annex on Santa Fe Drive in Encinitas from 1992 to 1993, but he yearned for a return to photography.
“Photo is what I love to do,” Dang said.
So in early 1994, Dang bought Plaza-One Hour Photo in the former Target shopping center at El Camino Real and Encinitas Boulevard. About five years later, he took over Encinitas Camera & Video and merged the two businesses. Dang stayed in the photo processing business until 2009, when the downturn in the industry forced Dang to consider other options.
It was his wife’s cooking that helped inspire him to enter the world of restaurants. Anna — also from Vietnam — often made her native dishes for family and friends’ parties.
“My wife has a cooking passion — she loves it,” Dang said. “She knew how to cook, so why not?”
He also noted that people still need food, and that won’t change.
Dang opened the first Pho-Ever in Vista in 2009, and after five successful years, he began to contemplate expansion. Encinitas was a natural choice for his second location, as he was familiar with the city and its residents, and there are few Vietnamese restaurants.
Pho-Ever opened at 120 N. El Camino Real last summer, in the space of the former Santa Fe Café. And it has been busy since Day 1, Dang said.
The restaurant breaks a bit from the traditional Vietnamese eatery, as the staff speaks fluent English, but it offers an array of dishes that are true to their country of origin. Vegetables and rice are commonly used ingredients, and the beef is filet mignon.
The signature item, of course, is pho, a rice noodle soup that is best attacked with chopsticks and a soup spoon. There are 18 varieties from which to choose, such as the Tai, which features tender pieces of filet mignon and the long, soft tubes of pasta floating in a rich, fragrant broth. It’s served with a heaping plate of garnishes that includes bean sprouts, Thai basil leaves and citrus wedges, and can be further spiced up with srirachan hot chili sauce, if desired.
"Specials" are also popular, ranging from stir fry, spicy shrimp and Vietnamese sandwiches (French bread stuffed with grilled pork, chicken or beef, and cucumber, cilantro and pickle), to crab noodle soup and Vietnamese crepes filled with shrimp, chicken, onions, bean sprouts and lettuce.
Such entrees can be supplemented with appetizers such as crispy egg rolls that are loaded with seasoned ground pork, carrot, jicama and taro.
Among the beverages available to accompany meals is the strong, traditional Vietnamese iced coffee, in which java drips from a small filter into a glass partially filled with condensed milk.
One of Pho-Ever’s patrons is Dang’s friend (and one-time photo customer) Stuart Grauer, head of The Grauer School. He posted the following about Dang in his online blog in August: “Some people complain that they are put out of work, displaced by technology, or replaced by someone younger or more foreign, or put down by people who make the money we want for ourselves, but some other people — the ones that work hard, and really care, and are craftsmen and real teachers — always seem to land on their feet,” he said.
Pho-Ever’s Encinitas location is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Go to www.pho-ever.net, or call (760) 436-6000.