Not Just a Number: Phở Restaurants

Published July 13, 2015 in Episode 12

In my quest to understand the background behind some iconic phở restaurant names, I decided to go to one of my favorite places in San Jose, Phở 54, with my friend Jered in tow. It is the perfect place to start, since it’s name can be found around the world.  

Jered gets right to the question at hand: “So what does Phở 54 mean?”

We check with our waitress, but she is stumped. So I called on Binh Nguyễn, co-founder of a popular chain of restaurants around the world called Phở Hòa.

“The numbers denote the timestamp of certain historic events to the Vietnamese,” Nguyễn explains.

For example, Phở 54 is a notation of 1954, one of the most eventful years to the Vietnamese. Phở is a traditional dish [that] originated from North Việt Nam and it was introduced massively to the South in 1954, along with the exodus of North Vietnamese, fleeing the coming communists, when the country was divided by an armistice accord.
— Binh Nguyễn

Similarly, Nguyễn says, the number 75 in Phở 75, came about this way. “In 1975 massive amounts of Vietnamese flee the communists go to other countries. Again, they introduced this traditional dish to the world. So the owner, whom I know, kinda reminisced on the historic events of the country. He has named his phở shop, Phở 75.”

As for those seemingly random numbers in phở restaurant names, Nguyễn explains that the habit of pairing the soup name with a number became a tradition.

You have Phở 88. [The] number 8 in some oriental beliefs is a number of prosperity and infinity. So 88 is prosperity for ever.
— Binh Nguyễn

Phở 79 is one of the restaurants that many people, especially older Vietnamese, know well.

Nguyễn says that's because its history goes way back. “The reason it is so well known is because it is the first one that is named in such a way. 79 is the number of the house where they opened the phở store. It's a very famous brand in Sài Gòn. And so, the owner carried that brand to the U.S. in the early 80s. He opened in Westminster, California, and as I know it is still open."

Vietnamese phở restaurateurs have now carried this naming convention to their new home countries.

The shop owner of Phở 54 in Sydney, Australia, says she named her eatery after its street number: 54 Park Road.

So why didn't Mr Binh Nguyễn name his restaurant with a number?

He laughed and was happy to elucidate. “Well we come very early on. Phở Hòa is a notation of harmony. Harmony in the sense that it's between a solid and liquids. And in the Vietnamese way of cooking food is a blend between the yin and yang.”

Phở 54, Phở 75, Phở 79…. they are not just numbers to denote a sequence of stores, but usually come with a special meaning. Whether it’s to honor a memory, to reflect history, or to bring a bit of Việt Nam’s past to the places we go, it’s a legacy the Vietnamese diaspora serves up daily.