Couple brings authentic Vietnamese food to Fort Smith

Alex Gladden
Paris Express
Pho Vietnam owners, Eric and Lilly Nguyen, are seen in their restaurant at 2214 Rogers Avenue, Wednesday, Feb. 3, in Fort Smith.

The restaurant is so filled with plants it looks like a jungle. Amid the plants, Eric Nguyen, 65, shuffles out to greet each customer and pour them complimentary tea. From behind his face shield, he speaks so softly it's difficult to hear him. 

That's from a war wound a lifetime ago before he lived in Fort Smith before he lived in the United States. 

Back before Eric fled Vietnam in 1975, he was a member of the South Vietnamese Air Force. 

Eric, whose Vietnamese name is Thanh, got his injury when he was in a helicopter that received fire from the ground. Eric was shot and eventually had to have his jaw replaced. After fleeing Vietnam, he spent four months in a hospital in Pensacola, Florida. 

“I don’t know how he survived," his wife Lilly Nguyen said. She later added, “A lot of people got killed in the helicopter." 

After getting out of the hospital, Eric was shipped to Fort Chaffee. He then got a sponsor in Rhode Island. He eventually left Rhode Island looking for a job. He hopped from Rhode Island to Baltimore to Michigan, where he met Lilly. 

Lilly, now 60, was still in high school when they met. Lilly's family also fled Vietnam in 1975. 

After Eric and Lilly married, they moved to Fort Smith for the warmer climate. Living in Michigan, the cold hurt Eric's jaw. 

Lilly said she remembers thinking that Fort Smith would be “like the old west." They moved to Fort Smith in 1978. 

In 1985, the couple took over what is now the restaurant from Lilly's cousin. Back then it was a Vietnamese grocery and video store. 

The Pho Vietnam, 2214 Rogers Ave.. interior with spaced seating as seen Wednesday, Feb. 3, in Fort Smith.

The Nguyens converted the store to a restaurant in 1995. Lilly's family owned a grocery store and restaurant back in Vietnam, so it was easy for her to make the switch. They raised their two children around the restaurant.

Once Lilly and Eric started cooking food, they developed a following from people looking for authentic Vietnamese food. 

"It's pretty authentic Vietnamese from a particular region," Yen Grigg said while she was eating in the restaurant. 

That makes it different from other Vietnamese restaurants in the area, Grigg said. 

Tam Pham, a friend of the Nguyens, eats at the restaurant at least once a week. He's been friends with the couple since he moved to Fort Smith in 2000. 

“We’re very good friends," Pham said. 

The Nguyens always fix Pham and his wife items that aren't on the menu. The couple always knows what to fix the Phams. 

“They can cater to your special tastes," Pham said. 

Pham said the Nguyens want the individual experience of each customer to be a good one. 

“They always want to do their best to please the taste of each customer," Pham said. 

The couple does this for all their customers. 

“I know they take good care of their customer," Pham said. 

Pham would recommend the restaurant to anyone, he said. 

“If they’re looking for genuine Vietnamese cuisine, that’s the place to go," Pham said.