What's in a name?
Alex Le, the owner of Pho King Way in Mission Viejo, is finding out.
When Le opened Aug. 13, it was against the wishes of his landlords at the Gateway Shopping Center.
They wanted him to change the name to "The Pho King," Le said.
"They said, 'Being a small, conservative community, we think people will take it the wrong way,' " he said.
Someone complained in an e-mail, too. The offended resident wrote:
"Too bad you have to include a tacky pun which is in VERY poor taste as the name of the restaurant. No 'fuh king way' will I give you my business. ... Many other neighbors of mine feel the same way. You picked a quiet 'family oriented neighborhood' for your establishment, shame on you."
But Le had already trademarked his name years ago. And he had a right to keep it, he says.
"That's what makes America great," he said. "You're not held down by your race or nationality. Because of our Bill of Rights, we have a lot of freedom."
Le describes himself as a Ronald Reagan conservative. And he says the few critics who have piped up have a lot of time on their hands.
"Do you really think Hooters was named because the owners love owls?" he asked jokingly.
Most customers have laughed at the name, he says. And he was surprised to find that older customers seem to enjoy the pun the most.
Apparently the name hasn't kept away customers. Le said this has been his best unadvertised opening yet.
Le's parents opened their first restaurant, Pho Saigon, in Oakland in 1986. Since then Le has opened restaurants in Carson, Rosemead and Las Vegas.
He also had a recent misstep in Keller, TX. After a year of good business, the customers stopped coming, he said.
The Texas restaurant came with a few challenges, he said. Bean sprouts and seafood are more expensive there, for example. But ultimately the customers just weren't ready for Vietnamese cooking, he said.
"People came in and asked for orange chicken or buffet," Le said.
So he decided to open the next restaurant back in California. The spot he picked (24000 Alicia Pkwy., No. 23) had been a successful bagel shop a while back, but two failed restaurants had come and gone since then. Le knew he was taking a gamble.
But he said customers have been surprised to find good, authentic Vietnamese food at his Mission Viejo location. He says he doesn't "whitewash" the food for local tastes.
He's trying some innovations, too. Rather than listing every individual pho soup, Le created a menu that lets customers mix and match easily. And he's experimenting with kobe beef in a dish called Pho King Kobe.
And Le puts a special importance on cleanliness, insisting utensils are both hand-washed and machine-washed, which is a step beyond what the law requires.
Keeping lots of customers happy is vital to the business model, the owner said. With profit margins at 25 percent, selling lots of pho is necessary to keep the business going.
So what was Le thinking when he came up with the name?
"When you come in here, we want you to know you'll find food befitting a king," he said.