Pho Hana freshens food, decor in former Vietnamese spot
Pho Hana serves “authentic” Vietnamese cuisine and replaced the site of Tram Le’s Restaurant at the corner of Smith and North Hotel streets in Chinatown.
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The corner of Smith and North Hotel streets in Chinatown has been the site of a Vietnamese restaurant for a long time. For about a dozen years, it was the site of Tram Le’s Restaurant, which was a regular haunt for many Chinatown regulars, but last year it was replaced by Pho Hana, an establishment similar in some ways — serving “authentic” Vietnamese cuisine, for one — but with some changes as well. From what I can tell, those upgrades have helped the site considerably.
52 N. Hotel St.
10 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday- Thursday, 10 a.m.- 10 p.m. Friday- Saturday (open until 2 a.m. on First Fridays), 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. Sunday
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There are, in fact, a lot of connections between Tram Le’s and Pho Hana. The proprietors are from the same family, but now the place is staffed by the family of manager Christina Brady, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who grew up here in Hawaii. Her mother is the main cook and is back in the kitchen every day.
“She’s old school,” Brady said of her mother. “I couldn’t even ask her to write down specific recipes. Everything is by pinch or taste or muscle memory. This is legit, straight from the source.”
In fact, Brady’s mother is occasionally joined by the cook from Tram Le’s, Brady’s aunt, who “got really bored after retirement and came back.” So customers of the previous establishment are seeing some of their favorite dishes return.
The decor of Pho Hana is simple and elegant. There are a few photos of Hawaii on the walls, and one big flat-screen TV in each of the dining rooms — the place is deceptively large, so don’t be put off if the front room seems full. There are also a few graceful examples of contemporary Vietnamese art on the walls, suggesting the influence of French colonialism.
The white tile flooring from Tram Le’s remains, and the overall feel of the place is airy, with light-colored walls and blondish furniture. The simple addition of a bar in the back, with colorful bottles shelved on the wall and glasses hanging underneath, gives the place a classy feel.
The menu provides a bit of fun. Appetizers are listed under the heading “Talk Story,” since the dishes are light finger food intended to be consumed over conversation, while rice dishes are in the category “Fly Rice.” The place takes its food seriously — it’s mama’s home cooking, after all — but doesn’t take itself seriously.
After Brady’s parents came to the U.S. in 1980, her mother, like many immigrants in a new land, soon figured out where to get the ingredients to make authentic, home-cooked meals. They shop in Chinatown and know local farmers so they can get everything fresh.
That is an especially nice factor in the preparation of banh mi, those popular baguette sandwiches. We tried the lemongrass chicken version ($7.50), which came with fresh parsley and crisp carrot slices. In addition to lemongrass, the chicken was sauteed with turmeric, the healthy gingerlike spice common to Indian food, and served with the same broth that comes with the restaurant’s pho dishes, like a French dip.
The specialty of the house is the oxtail soup, which comes with either rice or pho noodles. It’s most popular with the rice ($13.50), so that’s what we tried and we were not disappointed. The meat fairly fell off the bone, and over rice the combination of broth, bone and vegetable hit home nicely.
Off the appetizer list, we had the Fresh Summer Rolls ($7), which were exactly what one would have expected, and the Fried Chicken Wings ($8). These might have been rather ordinary — well cooked but not special — except for the small dish of salt and pepper with a slice of lemon that came with them. Brady squeezed the lemon into the salt and pepper, making a grainy dipping sauce that brought a nice tangy sense to the dish.
With a name like Pho Hana, you can guess that every hour is “happy” at this restaurant, as its website promises. Maui Brewing Co.’s Bikini Blonde Lager is a bargain at $3 all day. The other beers — Heineken, Dos Equis, Corona, Deschutes Fresh Squeeze, Miller Lite and Sapporo — are just $4, so you can’t go wrong if you’re a beer person. Mixed drinks and wine are also available.
Since it was the end of a long day, I tried the Vietnamese coffee, which was served authentic style, with condensed milk and sugar, dripped at the table, then poured over ice. It provided a good shot of energy.
Pho Hana lives up to its name: It’s comfortable, clean and friendly, a relaxed destination for after-work grinds.