Behind The Dream: Pho Dai Loi In Atlanta

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Meet Atlanta’s unofficial king of the first pho-maily: Lenh Luong. He once owned and operated all of Pho Dai Loi’s locations (who he now shares with his family), and you’ve probably heard about or tasted one of his delicious bowls following a ratchet night out, trying to recover from an annoying cold, or simply wanting to enjoy a fantastic meal.

But how did this family-run operation come to dominate Atlanta’s competitive pho scene? We sat down with Lenh to to learn about him and his family’s story.

Lenh arrived with his wife and brothers in the United States in 1991. Hoping for a better life than the one offered by communist Vietnam, he and his brothers escaped the country and lived in a Philippine refugee camp for six months in 1990. During the stay, Lenh and his family encountered many hardships, which included sharing only one room during the stay at the refugee camp, rationing out their food (because not a lot of it was available), trying to learn English, having locals treat him like trash, and praying every day that someone would sponsor them to go to the United States.

In 1991, a church answered his prayers by sponsoring Lenh and his family to come to the United States. That summer, he finally stepped foot on US soil… in Atlanta.

Lenh needed a job and only had the church and the Vietnamese community for support. At the time the small Vietnamese community didn’t have a lot of resources to provide people with jobs, especially those who didn’t speak English well. After one week, Lenh decided to walk on foot down Buford Highway looking for work at Chinese restaurants and small markets, but none of them offered openings.

Then, just when he thought he hit a new low, Lenh heard from a recently made friend that a Vietnamese restaurant needed a dishwasher/ kitchen helper. He instantly applied for the job at Pho Ca Dao (one of Atlanta’s first Vietnamese restaurant). The difficult job paid very little–only $300 a month–but Lenh knew he had to work hard to provide for his family and toddler son. After working as a dishwasher for five months, the head chef saw potential in Lenh and offered to teach him how to cook.

Thus Lenh begin his journey into the Vietnamese culinary world.  

In 1995 his mentor retired and Lenh became their head chef. Lenh always felt his mentor’s pho broth missed something, so for the next three years he often traveled back to Vietnam to eat and learn how to cook different kinds of pho broth. In 1998 he felt that he had found the perfect recipe and decided to start a restaurant of his own alongside both his brother and sister. Pho Dai Loi 1 opened in November of 1998.

Lenh in front of Pho Dai Loi in 1998

From installing new floors to painting the walls to whacking weeds behind the building, he and his brother, without any help, renovated a humble space in Forest Park. It took six months of hard work while they slept in an apartment with only a blanket and pillow. Then the day to open finally arrived.

And not many people came.

Lenh and his family would take the pho, and other food offered at their restaurant they didn’t sell that day and throw it away (since Vietnamese food depends on serving fresh ingredients). But eventually, the word got out about his special pho and the business began to boom. It became so popular that over the course of four years he had enough capital to open up the even more popular Pho Dai Loi 2 in 2002. He opened up a third location (in Duluth, Georgia) in 2010. His secret to success?

“I eat two bowls of pho a day. You have to love your own food if you expect others to eat it.” 

I replied, “Dayumn, Mr. Luong. Is that why you look so young at age 50?”

Mr. Luong also rattled off tips, like commandments, for opening and running a successful business:

“Some people cheat by using a spice bag, but I make my own!” when referring to how he concocts his broth.

“Your restaurant has to be CLEAN!”

“You have to buy quality ingredients.”

“You need a passion, for cooking. It’s not easy!”

“You must put your customer first.”

And most importantly, “All food must be fresh. Throw away the bad food.”

Unfortunately, after 26 years of cooking, Lenh doesn’t cook in the kitchen anymore. In 2017, after having a shoulder injury, Lenh retired to enjoy life more with his beloved wife. He then sold Pho Dai Loi 2 to both his cousin and sister-in-law. He then focused more on Pho Dai Loi 3–the newest branch. However, his brother, cousin, and sister-in-law now own and operate Pho Dai Loi 1, 2, respectively.

Kyle Luong

Lenh’s legacy lives on through his son Kyle, who, a few months ago, opened up Pho Dai Viet in Buckhead.

“I want to elevate Vietnamese food, and shows that it’s just not a cheap food. I also want to share it with non-Vietnamese people. I want to bring Vietnamese food to the next level,” Kyle passionately stated. He has aspirations to open up another location in a few years, too.

But it’s not just his family. Lenh has helped other people open up pho restaurants across the country. “Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas—I pay with my own money and help them learn how to run a pho restaurant.” And if his time weren’t generous enough, for several years Lenh and his family sponsor a couple of ATL’s Tet (Vietnamese New Year) festivals hosted by local Buddhist temples or Catholic churches.

When asked about achieving his dream, Mr. Luong said: “I have done what I have set out to do. I wanted the people of Atlanta to enjoy my pho, food, and craftsmanship as a chef. I feel like my time as a chef in ATL has taught me a lot as a person and made me who I am today. For now, I’m satisfied and have passed the torch to my son Kyle to perfect the craft of making pho. I hope he can help me share our food with everyone–not just the Vietnamese community. I will still stand alongside my son and help him elevate and spread traditional Vietnamese cooking, so that future generations of Vietnamese American and everyone that enjoys can always grab a hot bowl.”