AURORA – Linh Dinh said he never wanted to run a restaurant, but life had other plans for him.
The 48-year-old owner of Pho 888 in Aurora emigrated from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 1995.
While he never cooked in a restaurant in Vietnam, Dinh did work for a wholesale food company selling meat. “I had to go to the restaurants every night after they close to get my money,” he said.
While he hung out in the kitchens waiting to be paid, the cooks fed him. “Usually, how they make the dishes is secret — they don’t teach it, but I started asking questions,” he said. Questions like how to make pho broth or season the grilled chicken that appears in so many Vietnamese appetizers and entrees.
When he first arrived, Dinh went to work at his sister’s Vietnam Inn in Littleton, one of the older Vietnamese eateries in Colorado. After she sold the restaurant, he moved on to the New Saigon Restaurant in Denver mainly as a waiter except when the chef had a day off. “Then I learned how to cook many of the dishes,” Dinh said.
Eventually Dinh started catering special events for Vietnamese families, especially weddings. “I was catering over 200 weddings a year,” he said.
A friend had opened Pho 888 at the corner of Sable Boulevard and East 6th Avenue two years ago and Dinh used the kitchen to do his catering. Just a year ago his friend offered to sell the business and Dinh has ended up owning his first
The menu at Pho 888 includes Vietnamese chicken salad, rice noodle bowls and rice plates topped with grilled meat and seafood. But the main attraction is pho, pronounced “fuh,” one of the great national dishes of Vietnam.
Pho starts with a distinctive broth. “I slow-cook the broth for ten hours,” Dinh said. He wouldn’t divulge the recipe but he said it included beef bones, onion, ginger, star anise, herbs and cinnamon. “You have to get just the right flavor,” he said. Rice noodles are added along with a choice of classic additions including rare steak, brisket, flank steak, tripe, tendon, meatballs and chicken. The big white bowls of soup arrive with a side plate of garnishes including mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime wedges and jalapeno slices.
Like pho restaurants themselves, the topping combinations are numbered. (The number eight is coinsidered lucky and repeating it three times even luckier.) The overall bestseller at Pho 888 is the No. 18 topped with rare steak, flank steak and well-done brisket.
His Vietnamese customers love combos. “They always order the No. 10,” Dinh said, which combines rare steak, brisket, flank, tendon, tripe and meat balls. They also favor the No. 22 noodle bowl with grilled beef, shrimp, pork and chicken with egg rolls and the No. 32 rice plate topped with that same
On weekends Dinh makes some specials including “shaking” beef as well as beef lemon soup.
Pho 888 has also become well-known for its array of smoothies and boba drinks flavored with passion fruit, coffee, avocado, red bean, coconut and mango.
The diverse parade of pho lovers includes folks who work nearby at Kaiser Permanente and Raytheon, and Vietnamese families. The fare is also popular with the population at Buckley Air Force Base. “I give the soldiers 10 percent off,” Dinh said.
This winter Dinh has seen numerous out-of-state skiers who stop in on the way to and from the mountains. “One day I had people from Seattle, New York and California who read about us on Yelp,” he said.
Dinh said the restaurant and catering businesses are finally getting steady enough that he can focus more on his “other” pursuit as a professional singer. “I learned to sing in church in Vietnam,” he said. “When I moved here I started singing at weddings and at clubs.”
Now Dinh is well-known in the Vietnamese community in Colorado and the region. He recently sang at a wedding reception in Texas. “I love to sing pop music — lots of love songs” he said, smiling broadly. “My favorite pop singer is Celine Dion.”
As Dinh talks, his staff gathers in mid-afternoon at one long table for a meal of noodles with vegetables and tofu, because it was Ash Wednesday and he’s a Catholic.
“I cook every day for them, different family recipes. If they eat good then they work good,” he said.
“I tell them that this is a family.”
Dinh bought Pho 888 to help his friend and to have a place to cook, but he also had a higher motivation. “I have relatives who just came here from Vietnam. I did this to give them a job,” he said, just as others had provided for him.
539 Sable Blvd., Aurora