Sort-of Secret: Pho Ngoc Yen, a hopping Vietnamese restaurant tucked away in a Mississauga industrial park

Sort-of Secret: Pho Ngoc Yen, a hopping Vietnamese restaurant tucked away in a Mississauga industrial park

The airport-adjacent spot is popular for its short rib pho, bar snacks and warm hospitality

Pho Ngoc Yen

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The sort-of secret: Pho Ngoc Yen, a Vietnamese restaurant hidden in an industrial pocket of Mississauga
You may have heard of it if: You had a layover at Pearson and trawled through Yelp for something tasty nearby
But you probably haven’t tried it because: Without a car, getting there can be tricky (almost as tricky as snagging a 7 p.m. reservation on a Friday)

Driving by, it’s easy to miss Pho Ngoc Yen, tucked between an electronics wholesaler, a truck repair shop and a forklift training school. The main giveaway: a long lineup in an otherwise barren business park. From the outside, the red-brick building doesn’t inspire—it’s the juxtaposition with the interior that sparks joy. “We wanted it to feel like a Vietnamese resort,” says co-owner Tan Trinh. With its wood panelling, lush greenery (some real, some not), grass and bamboo accents, and twinkle lights, Pho Ngoc Yen transports you from Mississauga to the beaches of Nha Trang.

From left to right: Tan Trinh, Tin Trinh, Ngoc Yen Tran, Tri Tran

Pho Ngoc Yen is a family affair, run by sisters Tin Trinh and Ngoc Yen Tran (the restaurant’s namesake); their chef brother, Tri Tran; and his brother-in-law, Tan Trinh (Tin’s husband). The six-year-old restaurant has won a legion of fans thanks to its warm hospitality and culinary creativity—the fact that its food is very Instagram friendly doesn’t hurt, either. It gets a ton of customers who are new Canadians with limited English; they point to images on their phones of the dishes they want to eat. (The family isn’t entirely sure how so many people have pictures of their food.)

Chef Tri

Although Tri, who grew up in London, Ontario, has been working in kitchens since he was a teen, Pho Ngoc Yen is his first foray into professional Vietnamese cooking. As a young chef, with Mies Bervoets as his mentor, Tri focused on French and Italian fine dining. “Working at places like Miestro, Hogan’s and Cresta has informed my culinary approach,” he says. “Western cooking—and its emphasis on presentation—is totally different to Vietnamese cooking. I like to fuse both traditions while still making very authentic Vietnamese food.”

He makes everything from scratch, including his hot sauce and fish sauce. Inspired by the French mother sauce and its derivatives, Tri makes six different types of fish sauce, each with a different flavour profile: some have more lime leaf; others are spicier, sweeter or heavier on the lemongrass. And he uses other Vietnamese ingredients with abundance: shrimp paste, fermented crab and shrimp, and heaps of fresh herbs.

Pho Ngoc Yen

Tri’s enthusiasm for all things food was one of the reasons his siblings decided to support their brother’s dream of opening his own restaurant. “We knew he was talented,” says Tan, an engineer who never thought he would leave his job in automotive manufacturing to work at his brother-in-law’s Vietnamese restaurant in industrial Mississauga. But, when business started booming and Tri needed backup, Tan and Tin, who is also an engineer, agreed to go all in on the family business.

“We thought it would be a little lunch place that serviced the nearby businesses. We also had karaoke at night. Ngoc would perform sometimes—she’s a great singer,” says Tan. “But, quickly, it got too busy for that. Although we still have the stage, there are now tables on it because we needed to keep up with the crowds.” The exciting news is that karaoke may soon be back on the menu: the siblings have signed leases for two new locations, one in southern Etobicoke and another in Markham. Opening two more restaurants will, they hope, allow them a bit more breathing room to bring back fun programming.

Customers can buy jars of Tri’s house-made sauces and pickles to take home

The secret to Pho Ngoc Yen’s long lineups? “A lot of Vietnamese restaurants have the same menu,” says Tri. “I want to be different. Of course we have the classics—pho, vermicelli—but I travelled from the north of Vietnam to the south, trying all the regional street food and bar menus, and that’s where I found a lot of inspiration.”

Every month, apart from the core staples, the menu changes. “People are always coming back because there’s always something new to try,” says Tri. “Of course, the older generation doesn’t always appreciate creativity, but the younger ones understand it. I also like to use seasonal Canadian ingredients, like asparagus in the spring or Brussels sprouts in the fall, but I’ll make them into a very Vietnamese dish. So it can be a bit unfamiliar, but the flavours are always authentic.”

The short rib pho ($25) started as a seasonal winter dish, but it became so popular that it earned a permanent spot on the menu. For it, AAA Canadian short rib is braised overnight in a stock seasoned with cinnamon, star anise and cloves, so that the pho flavour seeps deep into the meat. The broth itself, made with daikon, beef bones and pho aromatics, is silky and slightly sweet. It’s a rib-sticking meal with a richness offset by a pile of fresh cilantro, basil and ribboned green onion.

Pho Ngoc Yen

Another popular recipe was inspired by no-escape chicken, a Vietnamese dish that involves a whole boiled chicken wrapped in sticky rice and deep-fried. The size of a soccer ball, it would be too massive a portion for the average diner, so Tri reimagined it as a more approachable plate: barbecue chicken with lemon leaf and coconut sticky rice ($19.75). For it, he grills chicken thighs that have been marinated in fish sauce and lemongrass. Then he forms coconut sticky rice into wedges and deep-fries them. “This is a good example of Vietnamese bar food,” says Tri. “It’s perfect for eating while drinking a beer. You wouldn’t have a bowl of pho with a beer!”

Speaking of bar food, a section of the menu is dedicated to snacks, although some of the items are only available after 5 p.m. “I don’t want to compromise our quality, so if something is very involved, we only offer it at night,” says Tri. “At lunch, we focus on getting people in and out quickly, and they appreciate that.”

Another bar-menu staple: chicken wings ($19.75). At Pho Ngoc Yen, they’re glazed with fish sauce, honey, garlic and green onions.

In Vietnam, most boozy fêtes start with something fresh, like this gỏi bò, a beef salad of sorts ($19.75). Pan-fried striploin slices are tossed with marinated carrots and daikon, cucumbers, leaf celery, red pepper, cilantro, and parsley. It’s all dressed in a citrusy fish sauce and served with shrimp chips.

Pho Ngoc Yen

To accommodate the growing number of customers who enjoy plant-based diets, Tri has created an entirely vegetarian section of the menu. Many of the meat-free dishes, including a vegan take on bún chả cá chay ($17, pictured below), are based on his mom’s recipes. The bowl comes piled high with “fish” cakes (made from flour, corn and seaweed), house-made tofu, mushrooms and dill in a broth made by cooking down cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, onions and garlic.

“I think the presentation of our dishes really sets us apart,” says Tri, who loves a good garnish. These woven boats—pictured full of shrimp-and-chicken taro spring rolls ($8)—were brought back from Vietnam.

Pho Ngoc Yen

These grilled mussels ($19.75) show off Tri’s fondness for a good garnish: each half-shell is topped with peanuts, onions, fried garlic, green onions, bird’s eye chili and herbs.

Unlike many chefs, Tri doesn’t think fusion is a foul word. For him, it’s simply the culmination of his culinary history. For the dessert below, he’s infused an ultra-creamy panna cotta with lemongrass ($12). For those seeking more traditional afters, he does a dish of fruit topped with grass jelly and chia seeds.

Pho Ngoc Yen

1090 Kamato Rd., units 17–19, Mississauga, 905-629-9559, website