Manayunk’s newest restaurant finds food inspiration from around the world to their own customers.
By Megan Douress Photos by JPG Photography (jpgphotography.com)
Canh Ho’s love of food started at a young age. Originally from Vietnam, the owner of Main Street Pho moved to America at the age of 12. His adoptive dad didn’t cook much, so he took it upon himself to learn the ins and outs of the kitchen, but this was long before the days of Pinterest and YouTube.
“I loved watching The Food Network — every chef, even Martha Stewart,” Canh said. “There was a show called ‘Yan Can Cook’ with Chinese-American chef Martin Yan, and I also watched Anthony Bourdain. I love how he traveled around the world and experienced every culture.”
Canh earned a degree in international business finance from Philadelphia University and worked in the field for 15 years before transitioning to pursue his passion. Canh, with the help of his wife, Bernice; sister-in-law, Nhan; and nephew, Jonny; opened Main Street Pho at 4307 Main Street on April 10. The success of his business started with a training session in Orange County, California where he took classes for a week.
“I learned how to make pho there,” Canh explained. “I went to every restaurant and would bring home broth to taste it and see what I liked best — what ingredients they used. That’s why we have pho today.”
After a week on the west coast, Canh took a four-hour course on specialty drinks in Brooklyn where he learned how to make his signature smoothies, Vietnamese coffee, and more. But when it came to learning how to run a business, he didn’t have to travel very far for training. His sister-in-law, Nhan, owns a Vietnamese restaurant in Deptford Township, New Jersey, where he shadowed her for two weeks before opening Main Street Pho.
“It’s part of why I’m in the food industry today,” Canh said. “I see the passion in what she has and I learned from it. I take my passion a little differently than what she has, though. She likes traditional Vietnamese whereas I like American-Asian — more modernized rather than just Asian food, which is especially relevant in this area.”
Taking a cue from the modernized Asian food he found on the west coast, Canh spent three months perfecting the broth he creates for his pho. For those who don’t know, broth preparation is a very complicated process consisting of boiling, resting, and many ingredients.
“I’ll tell you my process…except for a few steps because otherwise, you’ll use it!” Canh laughed. “Whether it’s chicken or beef broth, we let the bones boil and then let them settle down. Once it’s cooled down, you add the ingredients, like ginger — we use a lot of ginger. Then, you let it rest for 10 hours because it’s very hot — over 200 degrees. Last, you add more ingredients to the broth and let it rest for three to four days before serving.”
If that doesn’t sound complicated enough, Main Street Pho’s vegetable broth is even more complex, consisting of seven different vegetables. But Canh and his head chef love to make their vegetarian and vegan customers happy. They even have a separate cooking area just for their vegetarian dishes.
“It took many days, many hours, and many people telling me what they like best,” Canh added about creating the perfect broth recipe. “How did I know when I got the best recipe? Two main things: time and dedication between me and my two chefs.”
Canh’s “best” recipe is always evolving, thanks to the feedback of his customers. He’s always willing to listen to their advice, whether it’s because the broth is too salty or whether they feel like they need more noodles in their pho.
“I watch my customers,” Canh said. “When they eat everything off their plate, that means they’re enjoying it! If they don’t eat everything, then I always ask them what we could do differently. I keep track of how they like their pho so I can remember for the next time they’re in.”
Main Street Pho’s customers have influenced some of their menu items as well. While the menu is extensive — offering everything from crispy spring rolls as appetizers to shrimp spicy lemongrass as an entrée — Canh and his team are looking to expand the menu by three items every season. This fall, he’s hoping to add beef stew, cubed beef, and Bun bo Hue per his customers’ requests.
“Lately, people have also been asking for banh mi — Vietnamese hoagies,” Canh said. “It’s very hard to make but as long as I have enough customers who want it, I’ll make it.”
The signature Beef Pho Special is by far his most popular menu item, which he sells hundreds of bowls most days. Even so, his customers recently suggested adding a grilled chicken pho to the menu.
“It’s not traditional but a few customers came in asking for it,” Canh said. “I tried it, I loved it, and now it’s on our specials menu. It’s actually our second most popular pho.”
“Our fresh summer rolls and crispy spring rolls are very popular as well,” Canh added. “We don’t fry too much. Everything is grilled, steamed, boiled, and a lot of sautéing. It’s healthier, it’s tasty, and it’s fresh. I’m proud for not using MSG as well. I’ve done research on it and people are allergic to it, so I go with the customers and what they want.”
His customers are what keeps Canh going from day to day. He lives to please them, from the second they walk into the cozy pho spot to the second they leave with a fully belly.
“The customers, the people, excite me about coming into work every day,” Canh said. “I always tell them, ‘Try it and if you don’t like it, tell me!’”