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Terrasse Season Isn’t a Salve for This Small Village Spot

A fire hydrant means Pho Viet can’t join in on Montreal’s outdoor dining scene

inside of restaurant Pho Viet/Facebook

The city is alive and buzzing with premier François Legault’s recent announcement of a gradual reopening across the province, which spells the return of restaurant terrasses. However, as some establishments race against the clock to set up their outdoor spaces in time for May 28, there’s one decades-old spot in the Village that’s left waiting on the sidelines.

Pho Viet, a family-run Vietnamese restaurant on an unassuming stretch of Atateken Street, isn’t able to build an outdoor dining space due to a fire hydrant located on the sidewalk in front of the business. Nhu Lan Nguyen, one of the restaurant’s owners, said that the restaurant must therefore wait until Montreal enters the orange zone before serving diners on-site — though only inside.

“It’s a bit of a shame that we can’t build a terrasse ... because that would allow for us to increase capacity. We could squeeze in a small bistro table for two, but that isn’t enough. Once indoor dining is permitted, we can open the front windows — as we always do in the summer — but we’ll have to wait until then.”

Like other restaurants, Pho Viet invested heavily in plexiglass and other materials when indoor dining was permitted to resume last year. It then transitioned to a takeout-only model last fall, which was then hindered by the curfew. Due to the high fees charged by third-party companies, they decided to forego delivery altogether. Nguyen says the restaurant has experienced a staggering 85 to 90 percent drop in business since the start of the pandemic, and has been operating at just 16 hours per week since the curfew was introduced in January.

“It’s been really hard on us,” Nguyen says, adding that she’s apprehensive about celebrating a return to “normal” operations, in case of another unexpected shutdown.

Nguyen is one of two sisters that have owned and operated the small BYOB restaurant since opening in 1988, eight years after immigrating from Vietnam. Over the last year, Nguyen says she’s felt supported by longstanding patrons who continued to turn to Pho Viet for its Tonkinese soup, prepared according to their grandmother’s recipe. The dark colour of the broth — owing to an abundant use of beef bones — is a telltale sign of the soup’s northern roots, Nguyen explains, adding that her grandmother was raised in Hanoi.

“We use big bones that contain a lot of marrow and prime rib for extra flavour,” Nguyen says. The beef bones cook in the soup for at least six to eight hours, before adding brisket fat for two hours, along with a lot of ginger, onions, salt, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, and coriander for another few hours, producing a savoury aroma that travels through the restaurant.

But when the sisters decided to start their business in 1988, taking over their brother’s floundering restaurant, they weren’t sure what to offer. Having worked as a waitress in her early days in Canada, Nguyen felt at ease talking to diners and decided to pull some into the menu-making process, practicing new dishes at home and asking them for their opinions before officially adding them to Pho Viet’s offering. In addition to their pho, the sisters offer a range of other dishes including pan-fried noodles served with chicken, shrimp and sautéed vegetables; grilled meats with rice; and papaya salad with grilled beef — all available for takeout.

Thirty-three years later, Pho Viet has become a staple in the Village, well known for its friendly service and reasonable prices. And while the Nguyen sisters may have to wait a little while longer to serve patrons in person, they’re excited about the prospect of seeing some familiar faces within the next few weeks. “It’s going to be so nice to see their smiles again.”