By Vickie Lewis
Old Town Pinole’s newest dining venue, PHOnomenal, brings authentic Vietnamese cuisine to this diverse community. Owner, Sonnie Tu, opened PHOnomenal on February 5th, transforming the former Abby’s Grill into a steadily growing Vietnamese restaurant and delicatessen.
Although the name, PHOnomenal, may imply that only Pho is served at this restaurant, the menu also includes appetizers, numerous rice and vermicelli plates, and Vietnamese sandwiches, as well as a variety of beverages. However, Pho is definitely a specialty at PHOnomenal, with currently nine different selections on the menu. For those who may not be familiar with Pho, it is a type of Vietnamese soup that is typically made from beef or chicken stock and spices, to which noodles and thinly sliced beef or chicken is added. At PHOnomenal, all of the soup selections are prepared by Sonnie’s husband, Long, and all of the beef Pho selection are made with the finest Ribeye steak to provide a high quality dining experience for customers.
Coincidental with the opening of PHOnomenal, Sonnie and her family relocated to Hercules from the South Bay area earlier this year. Sonnie was previously the primary caregiver for her parents, which prevented her from working outside the home for a number of years. Now, no longer a caregiver, Sonnie wanted to find a job, but was uncertain about what she wanted to do. She’d always loved cooking and working in the kitchen, and so began to consider opening a Vietnamese restaurant, although she’d never been a business owner or restaurateur before. There were already many Vietnamese restaurants in the South Bay, so to avoid the competition, she began to look for business opportunities in other nearby cities. When Sonnie’s brother, who was already a Hercules resident, learned that Abby’s Grill was for sale, he notified Sonnie, and . . . well, the rest is history! Sonnie and Long have only a five minute commute to work from their home in Hercules, where they live with their two children, Dan and Kimberly, who also regularly assist at PHOnomenal.
The dining room of PHOnomenal is small, but is bright, clean and welcoming. There are 11 tables providing seating for up to 30 guests. The front windows facing San Pablo Avenue provide plenty of natural lighting, supplemented with ample recessed lighting in the high ceilings, which are adorned with heavy crown molding. The décor is simple, featuring large photographs of available Vietnamese sandwiches on one wall, and a large screen TV on the opposite wall. The atmosphere is casual and relaxed, perfect for a leisurely lunch or dinner. Upon our entry to the restaurant on a warm Sunday afternoon, my guest and I were promptly and courteously greeted by the staff and offered menus to peruse as we waited to interview Sonnie.
Sonnie and Long are both immigrants from Vietnam, but they actually met in the United States in 1990. As previously mentioned, Long prepares all of the Pho dishes, and Sonnie is the head cook for all other menu offerings, assisted by a couple assistant cooks. They also employ a small hostess and wait staff in addition to family members who help with the business. For the first several months, Sonnie worked 14 – 16 hour days getting the business up and running. Even now, long hours are still “par for the course”, starting with early morning shopping for fresh ingredients, and then preparing and cooking all foods fresh daily.
We began our culinary samplings by sharing a bowl of Pho—Rice Noodles with Ribeye (Pho Tai). The aroma of the Pho when it was delivered to our table was truly phenomenal . . . (pun intended!) Large pieces of thinly-sliced beef were mixed in with steaming beef broth, accompanied by a separate plate of fresh basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges and jalapenos to mix into the soup. The Pho was excellent—the beef was tender and easy to eat, and the broth seasoning was very flavorful. I would say this is my favorite Pho of all that I’ve previously tried at other Vietnamese venues. Some of the other Pho menu selections include the ribeye beef strips, combined with beef flank, tendon, and/or beef balls; there is also one chicken and one vegetarian Pho selection. I will definitely return for the “phenomenal” Ribeye Pho at PHOnomenal, and may also try the chicken Pho on a subsequent visit.
Next up were samples of the Vietnamese Shrimp Spring Rolls and Fried Egg Rolls. The spring rolls were made with shrimp, lettuce, rice vermicelli, celery and bean sprouts, all wrapped in rice paper. These are made fresh at the restaurant daily, and were some of the best spring rolls that I’ve ever eaten. A special highlight when ordering the spring roll appetizer is the excellent and generous portion of accompanying peanut dipping sauce, homemade by Sonnie, which further enhances the flavor of the spring rolls. Although the fried egg rolls are not handmade at PHOnomenal, they had an excellent flavor, and were cooked to a perfect crispness on the outside which enhanced the moist, tasty ingredients in the center. These also rank among some of the best eggrolls I’ve ever eaten and you shouldn’t miss ordering these when you visit.
Sonnie and Long were eager for us to try a little bit of everything from the menu, and soon their son, Dan, delivered two Vermicelli bowls (Bun) to our table. My guest had requested the Grilled Pork and Prawns with Peanuts over Vermicelli, and I’d opted for a similar dish, which substituted the prawns for fried egg rolls. These were served in large bowls accompanied by fish sauce, with all of the fresh ingredients heaped atop the vermicelli noodles. My guest mixed the ingredients, added the fish sauce, and enjoyed approximately half of the entrée, commenting again on the freshness and excellent flavor of the ingredients. I actually ate very little of my vermicelli dish, as I chose to wait for samples of the chicken and pork Vietnamese sandwiches that we’d also ordered. However, I did sample a few pieces of the pork, which was tender and perfectly seasoned, but then opted to take the rest “to go” to eat for lunch the next day. Sonnie ordered one each of the pork and chicken Vietnamese sandwiches cut into smaller pieces so we could sample each one. The sandwiches are not currently on PHOnomenal’s menu, having been added after the menus were created. However, as previously mentioned, large, colorful photographs of the sandwiches are displayed on the restaurant wall, enticing patrons to order them. I especially enjoy Vietnamese sandwiches because of the Daikon radish and pickled carrots which add distinct flavor, so I was excited to try the sandwiches at PHOnomenal. Both were very good, though both my guest and I preferred the pork sandwich over the chicken. Each was served on long, toasted rolls, and were filled with fresh tomato, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno pepper slices and a special recipe mayonnaise created in-house. Of all the many samples we tried that day, it is difficult to say which I liked best; however, I believe that the sandwiches offer a nice alternative to the larger meals on the menu. And compared to sandwiches offered in traditional delicatessens, the Vietnamese sandwiches offer a lighter, fresher flavor—perfect to take out for an afternoon picnic by the bay or to enjoy at home while watching a late afternoon or evening movie.
Suffice to say that Sonnie, together with her family and staff, were very generous and gracious hosts, and are excited to get the word out about PHOnomenal. Although the business is still young, Sonnie said that they get extremely busy during the peak of the lunch hour (12 – 1) and the busiest dinner hours are 7 – 8:30. They have already amassed a following of regular customers, and are steadily attracting new business. Sonnie is eager to please her customers, and in response to requests, is gradually increasing her menu offerings. For example, she now offers Bun Rieu, a tomato-based soup with crab, tofu, and vermicelli, although you won’t find it on the menu just yet. Won Ton Soup is another item that will soon be available as a result of customer requests. Sonnie is keeping the menu “fluid” for now, assessing what customers prefer from the existing offerings, and adding new items that are in demand. She is also considering other new options, such as introducing Happy Hour to attract more business during the slower afternoons and early evenings.
It seems that Old Town Pinole’s newest restaurant has already become a hit, and promises more new and exciting things to come to please their customers. Don’t forget that in addition to the wonderful food I’ve described herein, you can enjoy traditional Vietnamese coffee, as well as Thai Iced Tea, freshly made lemonade, sodas, bottled water, and most notably—a large glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice with ice. Sonnie also plans to introduce smoothies to the drink menu in the near future. Stop in soon and try PHOnomenal for lunch, dinner or take-out and support your local Old Town merchants. Sonnie and her staff eagerly await the opportunity to serve you and share the deliciousness packed into each item they prepare! Enjoy!
2320 San Pablo Avenue in pinole | (510) 964-7647
Open Tuesdays – Sundays: 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM (Closed Mondays)