REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For 21st Century Media
With so many tragedies and horrors on the front pages of every major daily newspaper and every 11 o’clock TV news show, it is important to keep in mind that there are also uplifting stories that celebrate the best of the human spirit and the ability to overcome almost unimaginable obstacles.
One such story is that of Phuoc “Po” Le, now 53, who escaped from Vietnam by boat 33 years ago with nothing but the clothes on his back. He owned no belongings and spoke no other language but Vietnamese, so things were not exactly looking up for him. Many other Vietnamese escapees dreaming of freedom either drowned, staved to death or were killed by pirates in their vain search for freedom.
But Po Le made it safely to Hong Kong and eventually to New York, which might explain why he is so relentlessly cheerful today, in contrast to the fate of so many of his countrymen and women. Like so many other Asian immigrants, even some who were professional people in their native lands, Po Le could only get a most menial job — washing pots in a restaurant in 1982.
It just so happened, however, that he was washing pots at La Grenouille, one of the country’s most expensive and highly rated French restaurants. But Po Le was determined to do much more than wash pots, so he assiduously watched the haute cuisine chefs prepare their dishes while asking countless questions of the “top toques.”
Back home in Vietnam, “Men did not do the cooking; that was the culture. If you’d go into the kitchen, the women would chase you out.”
It sounds like a Hollywood movie plot, but in 1990 Po Le was named the pastry chef at La Grenouille, a job that traditionally went to chefs trained at the top culinary schools in France, but this was definitely no sympathy hire. In fact, not long after he began his new job with no previous professional training or experience, Gourmet magazine raved in its October, 1990, issue about Po Le’s “unwaveringly toasty, buttery and lightly crisp” fruit tarts.
Le later worked for Francois Payard at Le Berdardin, another of New York’s most expensive, elegant restaurants, and then Susanna Foo in center city Philadelphia, Il Gallo Nero in Springhouse and La Veranda on Penn’s Landing. Most recently he was the executive chef for 13 years at Ristorante San Marco in Springhouse.
But like virtually every chef in creation, Le longed to prepare his own recipes his own way, no matter how highly regarded his former employers’ restaurants might have been. (See the current movie, “Chef,” for a perfect example of this dilemma.) So last September Le walked out on the high wire and opened Po Le Cucina at 821 N. Bethlehem Pike in Springhouse, about a mile east of Ambler. It is a BYOB in a strip mall, which was previously occupied by another Italian BYOB, Mina Cucina Rustica.
So why Italian food for this Asian chef with years of experience in French palaces of gastronomy? “Unless you’re Asian like me, you eat Chinese food maybe once a week,” he explained. “If you say pasta, you can eat it three or four times a week. When you open a business, you want to appeal to everyone. You want to be busy because then everything is always fresh; a busier restaurant is a better restaurant.”
Po Le Cucina is definitely a busier restaurant, thanks to Le making lightning strike in his open kitchen. We have eaten dinner there three times in recent weeks, and each time every table was occupied, with more people waiting on the porch for each of the coveted 36 seats. The last time was on a Wednesday night with a 90-plus degree temperature outside, but it was still beehive-busy inside. “On weekends we always have people leave because they do not want to wait any more,” said Le, “but we just got approval from the township to put tables outside, and we will soon be able to seat 24 more outside. And our long-range plan is to take over the place next door, break through the walls and double our indoor seating. We have had to turn down so many requests for big parties because we just could not accommodate them all.”
At Po Le Cucina day-glo dishes light up the tables. You might call this economy gastronomy because the prices are so reasonable. Many upscale BYOBs in the area charge elevated prices for food to make up for the fact that they are making nothing from alcohol, normally the big profit-maker for restaurants. Not so with Po Le Cucina. Most appetizers are in the $7 to $10 range, and most entrees are no more than $22. And there is no skimping on portions. “I am in this for the long haul,” said Le, “so I am willing to charge less of a markup on food to encourage people to come back often and to tell their friends.”
Rather than describe several dishes in detail, which would take up too much space, I will just say that everything we have had over three visits (with four people during two of them) has been nonpareil. Not a joker in the deck. And the servers have radiated warmth as efficiently as a fireplace. If I were forced to make specific recommendations about dishes that make the nerve endings tingle, I would say the divine Po Le’s trio (fresh tomato, mozzarella and roasted peppers), the sublime lobster bisque, the frisson-inducing clams casino and the pan-seared salmon topped with a an elixir of pesto sauce and chunks of lobster.
Le also gets a boost from his children — Phillip, 16, a high school student, and Duyen, 19, a college nursing student — who wait on tables and are mature and professional far beyond their years. Le and his wife, who is 44, and children live in Chalfont.
“This is a very tough business,” Le said, “but I am enjoying it so much. If you work hard and are disciplined, you can do it. It’s what’s in your heart. But you have to prepare from top to bottom and be consistent, providing the best possible experience for your customers, day in and day out. That is the bottom line.”
For more information or reservations, call (267) 663-7204 or visit www.polecucina.com