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Pho King Way: Funny Name or Offensive?

The owner of Mission Viejo's only Vietnamese restaurant talks about the challenges and controversies that came with opening this summer.

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.

Pipes September 22, 2011 at 02:04 PM
I found the name to be cleaver...not something to be expected in boring, bland Mission Viejo. To the people that take offence, lighten up. Seriously. What exactly does it take to make you laugh? I've not yet eaten there yet, but plan on it soon. I will congratulate the owner :)
Rachel September 22, 2011 at 02:45 PM
This new establishment is a great addition to Mission Viejo. The food is fresh, flavorful, and authentic Vietnamese. I think it will become a local favorite for Asian foodies and a place where people who may have never tried Vietnamese food feel comfortable dining at - since Alex is a pro at explaining and recommending dishes. Like the commenter before me, people need to lighten up about the name and just stop in and try the delicious food. You won't be disappointed!
Lani September 22, 2011 at 03:40 PM
My husband and I have been there a couple of times (and even recognized the second). Alex is warm, welcoming, very personable, and helpful. The food is fabulous. Like Rachel said, fresh and flavorful; a rarity in Mission Viejo. The pho is so tasty, but the bun is my favorite; noodles+meat+salad=what more can you ask for? I hope this "King" has a long reign!
KC September 22, 2011 at 03:51 PM
I have to admit I did giggle when I saw it. The people who would probably get offended by it wouldn't know how to pronounce it and would miss the semi-naughty language.
Eric Richardson September 22, 2011 at 04:19 PM
Very clever name, it sure catches your attention. This article is good publicity. Sounds like the food is good, we'll have to try it out. I agree that the people who are critical probably have too much time on their hands.
Shripathi Kamath September 22, 2011 at 04:28 PM
To me it is funny because it is offensive to some.
Bretta September 22, 2011 at 05:04 PM
Sarah Palin talks like this all the time, according to the recent triumvirate of her political and personal life accounts - so it should fit in well with Mission Viejo.
Shripathi Kamath September 22, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Put the bottle down. It is still AM
Holly September 22, 2011 at 05:18 PM
The food IS good!! Finally, an authentic Vietnamese restaurant in MV! Now we don't have to drive all the way to Garden Grove for awesome pho! If you haven't tried the restaurant, please do...you won't be disappointed! And the name is just tongue in cheek--the economic climate is bad for new businesses already, let's not kill our sense of humor, too!
KC September 22, 2011 at 05:22 PM
Did you try the places in Lake Forest (before this place opened)? They are good too.
Dan Avery September 22, 2011 at 06:08 PM
I had the bun and it was truly delicious. I'm not surprised that the food didn't go over in Texas, but it should be a hit here. It's by far the most authentic ethnic food in MV. I'd love to see more authentic ethic food. The chains, like CPK and Cheesecake Factory, get old fast.
Panglonymous September 22, 2011 at 10:30 PM
I once lived in a small town where ALL businesses were REQUIRED to pun in their name. (See, "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There", David Brooks, 2000) Oppressive.
Julie Flores September 23, 2011 at 01:42 AM
Now that's funny.
Peter Schelden (Editor) September 23, 2011 at 03:47 PM
I've never heard of such a thing, Pan. Where was that?
Holly September 23, 2011 at 05:00 PM
Hi KC. Yes, I have...they're not bad...but I prefer PKW (no MSG)--not to mention that we are supporting a Mission Viejo business--win-win!
Susan Sellers September 23, 2011 at 10:12 PM
I went there today for the second time and it was packed! Great food!! FYI - Il Picanto next door has excellent Italian food - check them both out!!
Dan Avery September 24, 2011 at 03:36 AM
Susan is right. I went there today for the second time with Victoria and we both loved the bun. Il Picanto next door is also wonderful. Had a great lunch there the other day. There are quite a few good places to eat in the Gateway Center and for some reason they have trouble making a go of it. We need to support them because they are not chains.
Sarah August 22, 2013 at 12:49 AM
I think the name is hilarious!! Went in today and had the Pho Ga and a Thai iced tea -- they were both excellent. Will definitely bring the family back.

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