• The owner's children, outside Pho Tau Bay in Sydney's Cabramatta, waiting for Lunar New Year celebrations to take place. (Chi Giang)Source: Chi Giang
People queue for Phở Tàu Bay's dish, which hasn’t changed since Vietnamese migrant Thi Nhu Pham opened the Sydney restaurant in 1982.
Melissa Woodley

1 Jul 2022 - 8:46 AM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2022 - 9:59 AM

Catch a 50-minute train ride southwest from Sydney's Central Station and you’ll arrive in Cabramatta. This suburb has been a home for Vietnamese migrants since the 1970s and now boasts the largest Vietnamese population in Australia.  

One eatery that has been serving old-school, Vietnamese comfort food to the community for almost 40 years is Phở Tàu Bay. It’s hard to believe that this restaurant started in the living room of Vietnamese migrant and owner, Thi Nhu Pham, back in 1982. Forced to leave home after the Fall of Saigon, Pham packed up life in Vietnam and boarded a refugee boat to Indonesia. She was nine months pregnant when the boat landed in Indonesia and ten days after giving birth to her son, in late 1978, Pham was granted entry to Australia.

Arriving in Sydney with limited cash and minimal English was a frightening experience but Pham was lucky to have relatives that had also migrated to Sydney and whom she shared accommodation with.

To make ends meet, Pham came up with the idea to sell bowls of pho to the local Vietnamese community.

“On her first day of trade she had four customers,” her son, Chi Giang, tells SBS Food.

Word spread fast and “what started off as a one-day trade, became two days”, he says, and the next year, turned into a proper restaurant. 

40 years since its opening, Phở Tàu Bay can still be found at its original location near the corner of Hill and John streets in Cabramatta. Pho fans travel across Sydney for a warming bowl of the phò bò dâc biêt (special beef noodle soup) and if you visit on the weekend, don’t be surprised to find yourself lining up for a prized table at the 40-seat joint.

When asked why customers love the restaurant's pho so much, Giang says that “it all comes down to the broth”. Preparation for the broth begins in the late afternoon and it is then simmered overnight, ready to dish up when doors open at 8am the next day.

“On her first day of trade she had four customers.”

This broth is the hero in the best-selling pho. The bowl is loaded with fresh, silky rice noodles, thin slices of raw beef, tender beef brisket, beef balls, beef tendon and bible tripe. A side plate of bean sprouts, Asian basil and lime is also provided, and each table has communal bottles of hoisin and Sriracha so that customers can create a dipping sauce for the meats.

What many people don’t know is that Phở Tàu Bay does all of its own butcher’s work. This is a tribute to Pham’s father who sold game meat for a living in Vietnam and her father-in-law who was a pork and beef wholesaler.

“There's a lot of prep work going on behind the scenes,” Giang explains. “We get meat from the wholesalers, and we actually trim it down and slice it ourselves.”

Other classics on the menu include the com dặc biệt (pork chop with rice and steamed egg cake), and bằnh cuốn cha chiên (steamed rice rolls filled with minced pork).

Pham is grateful to have had her family by her side through all the highs and lows of running this small business.

“There was one stage when mum was very stressed in the '90s,” Giang says. “There weren’t many people coming to Cabramatta, so business wasn't doing so well… She wanted to give up, it was just not feasible to continue – but we stayed strong, and we got through it.”

The family is also grateful for its customers, most of whom are from the local community, and some are even friends from Pham's time living in Vietnam. 

“Over the years, we’ve seen three generations come through the doors,” Giang says. “We’ve seen kids that were babies and now they're full-grown adults with their newborns, coming in to eat.”

Despite being semi-retired, Pham can still be found prepping meat and vegetables at the restaurant every day. Business is thriving and despite multiple requests and opportunities to franchise, the family restaurant is staying close to home (at least for now).

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.

Pho Tau Bay
Shop 12/117 John Street (enter via Hill Street), Cabramatta NSW, (02) 9726 4583
Thur – Mon 8 am – 7 pm

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