Southeast Asian meets Southwest Austin
In 2010 Pat Lee noticed that Vietnamese food had not gone mainstream.
He and his wife, Sara, were operating a franchise of a Houston-based Vietnamese restaurant at the time.
They researched opening a fast-casual restaurant with counter service and opened PhoNatic Vietnamese Cuisine on Anderson Lane in October 2011.
"We are different because there are so many stereotypes about getting authentic Asian cuisine," Sara said. "What we are trying to do is still serve it in a modern atmosphere. The stereotype is that it has to be a hole-in-the-wall [restaurant]."
The Lees opened a location in South Austin in June 2013 and a Cedar Park location in January.
"We have regular customers who drive [to the South Austin location] from Buda and Kyle," she said.
Pat, who is originally from Vietnam, developed the recipes for the restaurant.
The menu is simple—"It's either soup or not soup," Sara said. The soups include traditional Vietnamese pho (see sidebar). Non-soup options include marinated meats over rice, noodles or salads.
The grilled pork and fish choices are popular, she said.
PhoNatic also recently finished construction on a commissary kitchen.
"We want to make sure that no matter how many locations we open, that the food is always perfect," she said.
The Lees said they hope to eventually take PhoNatic statewide.
Sara said Austin customers will ask if PhoNatic is a national chain because they prefer to eat at locally owned restaurants.
"Well, I'm mom, and pop is over there," she said.
Pho, pronounced "fah," is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup.
Pho is typically served as a breakfast food in Vietnam but can be eaten at any time of day, owner Sara Lee said.
The soup itself is the most important element; the meats simply add to the flavor, she said.
Pho is meant to be hearty in taste but not heavy.
"We really accomplish that by having a good soup stock," she explained. "We use beef broth to make our beef stock and full chickens for our chicken stock. The process, start to finish for either soup, is about 10 hours."
PhoNatic offers versions of pho with filet mignon and ox tail, the latter being very popular for its flavor, Sara said.
PhoNatic is one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in Central Texas to have a truly vegetarian pho with a vegetable-based broth, she said.
Diners also have a build-your-own-bowl option starting at $7.25.
The Banh Mi Sliders are the most popular item on the menu, owner Sara Lee said. The sliders' full name is Banh Bao Thit Nuong and they include grilled pork, cucumber, pickled carrots, jalapeos, daikon and cilantro on a steamed Peking bun (three for $5.95). Other menu items include:
- Cha Gio—Fried Vietnamese egg rolls with pork, shrimp, mushrooms and vegetables served with fish sauce ($1.70 for a single egg roll, $3.15 for an order)
- Com Thit Heo Nuong—Grilled marinated pork served with steamed rice and a side of vegetables ($7.95)
- Mi Bo Vien—Beef meatballs, red and green onions and cilantro served with egg noodles in beef broth ($7.25 regular, $7.95 large).
- Mi Thap Cam Kho—Dried egg noodle, chicken breast, fish balls, jumbo shrimp, crab stick, ground pork, roasted garlic, onions, green onlon, leeks and cilantro served with chicken broth ($7.95 regular, $8.85 large).
- Com Dau Hu Chien—Fried tofu with steamed rice and vegetables ($6.75)
- Che Thai Lan—Lychee, jackfruit, longan, tapioca and jelly with crushed ice and creme ($3.75)