Pho Kai hopes location is recipe for success

Restaurant features similar menu to its predecessor

The small-town atmosphere drew Jenny Diep to Port Orchard. It also is what kept her here.

Diep said she thought about returning to King County when she closed Kai Pan Asian Cuisine last summer. But when a real estate agent showed her a space on Olney Avenue near Albertsons that did not require a down payment, Diep was intrigued by the opportunity.

Her first task was convincing longtime boyfriend Kyle La, who has run sports bars in the past, that it was an opportunity worth pursuing. The couple have two children and the restaurant’s namesake, 6-year-old Kai, is autistic. Because of that, Diep sought a different arrangement with La at Pho Kai than they had at the previous establishment.

Diep said she does not have an ownership stake in Pho Kai, which celebrates its first anniversary this month. She does have a significant role, though. Diep serves as an advisor and spokesperson for the quiet La, who owns the restaurant.

“I kind of help him,” she said. “I kind of teach him pretty much everything he knows. But I like the idea that I can walk out with my children pretty much anytime. I’m really enjoying this.”

Diep said the main reason why they wanted to remain in Port Orchard was the educational opportunities to assist their son.

“It’s about time I put my children first,” she said.

While the location is different, Pho Kai has a similar feel to its predecessor, including the familiar light shades of green, orange and yellow. The dining area seats about 45 people, and is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

The menu also is similar. Diep believes the previous restaurant, which opened in January 2011, struggled because of its location rather than its food. Popular restaurant review sites, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, seem to support that theory. Kai Pan Asian Cuisine was rated 4-1/2 stars on TripAdvisor, while Pho Kai is rated four stars on Yelp.

Diep, 39, who is of Chinese descent, was born in Vietnam and moved to the Seattle area when she was 11. As a teenager, she began working in area restaurants, learning recipes to incorporate with those she learned from her family. She now has passed along those lessons to La, 48.

“The food and ingredients are popular in Port Orchard and I know a lot of people liked it over there,” Diep said. “That’s why we keep the same menus for him. I challenge my recipe a lot, so I wanted to see if it could keep going in someone else’s hands.”

So far, she is impressed with her student’s work.

“This is from a guy that was just sitting there and owning a sports bar,” Diep said. “To become a chef; I’m pretty proud in what I’ve trained him into.”

Pho remains the specialty. Offerings of the fresh rice-noodle soup include tofu and vegetables, chicken, thinly sliced brisket and meatballs. Diep said the broth is cooked throughout the day and incorporates cilantro, onions and spices.

She said health was a significant consideration in devising her menu, and that none of its offerings include MSG, a common food additive.

Health-conscious customers also might consider the vermicelli bowl. Diep offers five different combinations featuring fresh vegetables, which she purchases daily, herbs, ground peanuts and either grilled chicken, pork, scrimp or tofu. She also buys her meats daily. And the dish comes with a surprise.

“The naughty twist is the egg roll,” she said.

Pho Kai offers a variety of specialty dishes, as well. Those range from Mongolian beef to orange chicken. Diep likes the honey cashew shrimp.

“I have giant, jumbo prawns, cashew nuts, and the mayo dressing I create is tangy,” she said. “The shrimp pops in your mouth because it is crispy.”

The meal is topped with cashews, which is different from the traditional offering of shrimp with walnuts. Diep said she uses cashews in the plate, which is the restaurant’s most expensive, along with the Szechuan shrimp, at $14.95, because they lack the “bitter” aftertaste that walnuts leave.

The menu also features a variety of vermicelli bowls, Vietnamese sandwiches, fried rice and wok-fried noodles. Most items are less than $10.

Diep believes the new arrangement with La, who was a business partner at the previous restaurant, is working well.

“We’re just trying to make it in Port Orchard and raise two little kids,” she said, adding that weekday crowds at Pho Kai are similar to what they used to experience on the weekend. “I like this idea.

“I don’t feel the stress and I feel like my recipe is still alive.”