Pho Special lives up to its name

Written by Joe Stumpe

When he transitioned from machinist to restaurant owner 10 years ago, Don Nguyen kept one old vocational habit — a meticulous attention to detail.

That’s why you’ll find him in the kitchen at Pho Special just about every minute that his restaurant is open. Nguyen employs a staff to help with the cooking, but he’s still the main cook and keeps an eye on each dish that goes out to customers.

Located on Pawnee just off I-135, Pho Special occupies a building that was serving up authentic Vietnamese cuisine even before Nguyen took over. Nguyen changed its name but the dual nature of the place — as both a gathering place for Wichita’s Vietnamese community and a favorite of foodies from all backgrounds — remains. Indeed, a local chef who happened to be present when SPLURGE! arrived to interview Nguyen called it his “go-to place for takeout.”

Pho — the addictive beef-and-noodle soup that’s considered Vietnam’s national dish — naturally takes center stage. In a town full of good pho, Nguyen tries to set his apart by sourcing the very best sirloin he can find. Thin, raw strips of the stuff are added to huge, piping hot bowls of broth seconds before they’re brought to diners, so they arrive a deliciously tender medium rare.

Other regulars’ favorites include grilled pork with vermicelli rice noodles, five-spice chicken over rice, and egg rolls, the latter much thinner and crispier than their Chinese counterparts. One popular non-Vietnamese specialty on the menu is Korean BBQ, thin-cut beef short ribs that are marinated in a sweet-salty sauce and then grilled. For dessert and a pick-me-up, there are freshly made smoothies (luscious avocado, papaya, etc.) and café sua — strong chicory coffee and sweetened condensed milk served over ice.

In a way, Nguyen’s career move wasn’t a complete surprise. “I always liked to cook for friends and family,” said the native of South Vietnam, who immigrated to Wichita in the early 1980s.

Nguyen admits the shift from good home cook to professional cook took time. He settled on a philosophy he follows to this day:

“You cook something you like to eat, you serve it to the customer. Otherwise, no.”

Pho Special
2409 E. Pawnee
Wichita, KS 67211

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