A win for Nguyen

The Nguyens make soup at Pho 777.

The Nguyens make soup at Pho 777.

Photo By David Robert

In the swinging 1920s, the four Pincolini brothers— Joseph, Evaristo, Adelvaldo and Dante—built a hotel on the corner of East Second and Lake streets using profits from their agricultural endeavors. From the turn of the century until around World War II, this part of town was considered Reno’s Little Italy.

The businesses on the ground floor of the Pincolini building have changed over the years. These days, the building is home to one of Reno’s best-kept secrets—a small Vietnamese noodle restaurant called Pho 777.

In 1979, a young student in his 20s named Nguyen Thanh Nguyen escaped from his small town of Can Thos, 170 kilometers south of Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, in Vietnam.

Crammed into a small overcrowded boat, Nguyen’s group left Vietnam at the end of June, the beginning of the worst season to be on the open sea. Nguyen remembers this period in his life well.

“From July to August the ocean is like this,” Nguyen gestures, his hands indicating big waves.

Nguyen says 52 people died at sea. Infants and elderly individuals were thrown overboard during the tumultuous 14-day ocean voyage.

Once the survivors finally made it to Thailand, they found that there was no more room for refugees, so they had to get back in the boat and try Malaysia next. There was no room there, either.

Next stop, Indonesia.

“My family had no word from me for three months and 10 days,” Nguyen says. “They had given me up for dead.”

Once in Indonesia, he entered Pulau Galang, a refugee camp with detention barracks where he spent the next two years waiting for a country to let him in. The camp now serves as a tourist spot.

After being denied entry by Canada and Australia, Nguyen finally made it to the United States and found work as a machinist in San Jose, Calif. He moved to Reno in 1989.

Once here, he began waiting tables at the restaurant and learned enough to take over in July, 1993, where he continues to run things with his family.

“My wife learned how to cook in a cooking school in Vietnam and most of the family also works here,” says Nguyen.

Pho 777’s traditional Vietnamese fare includes beef rice noodle soups ("pho"), rice dishes and a variety of specialities—nothing over $6. Noodle soups are served with a condiment plate of bean sprouts, basil leaves, hot peppers and a wedge of lime.

The tai rare steak soup is a favorite of many. For dessert, consider trying the Ca Phe Sua Da, the name a derivation of the French influence in Vietnam, an iced espresso with condensed milk. Or keep it simple, have some tea and save some money. The Tra Nong Tea will only set you back 20 cents.

Since Pho 777 is invariably crowded, especially during the lunch hour, plan ahead. You can also get your pho to go.

“The best time to come is during the week, because during the weekend is when the tourists come in from the casinos,” Nguyen recommends.

Nguyen says that he is concerned about the effects Indian gambling in California will have on Reno, but for now, he’s counting on the luck that brought him halfway around the world.

“Business is good," he says.