By Evan J. Pretzer
Lue and Hlee Lee invited Wausau area residents into the Pho Zone inside the now-demolished Wausau Center Mall in 2019,but had to close due to COVID-19. Now they are nearing a reopen of the business, in the former Vino Latte building in Weston.
As of this story’s filing the couple also behind the Icy Yummy ice cream roll business common at area events are putting the finishing touches on their permanent Pho Zone location at 4204 Schofield Ave. in Weston. They are about 90% ready, have a few inspections to do and Lue Lee says with the pain and pandemic strain under their belts now they will be even better.
“We will be coming back and building stronger,” he says.
When in the mall their principal offering was pho, the Vietnamese dish which includes broth, rice noodles, herbs and some meat. The Lees learned their recipe from a Vietnamese elder in Chicago who brought it over to this country from his family. They take pride in the fact they do not put any monosodium glutamate (MSG) into it while keeping the flavor they have become known for. Hlee Lee adds this does come with a caveat and they are eyeing new items, too.
“We cannot guarantee other ingredients might not have MSG,” she says. “Otherwise, our new Pho Zone will be the same but we will change a little. A lot our friends and families experience a lot of mixed culture with food. So, this time we are focusing on a mixed eatery. We will have Asian food, also some American and maybe tap into some Mexican, Italian and French. When we have these types of foods around here it is comforting for members of the community also.”
This dispersal around the globe is because the Lees and their friends and families are members of the Hmong diaspora. The community made its way to Wausau and other parts of the United States and other countries after the Vietnam War. It has a strong familial dynamic and this is something the pair hope to bring into their bigger space when it opens fully in the fall months.
“We want this space to be a family space, especially in the morning,” Hlee says. “We want teens and kids to hang out and in the night we will mostly be for adults. This will only be for three or four nights and with our bar we are not planning on being open later than 1 am. We hope to cater to the whole community and hope to stay a local neighborhood family eatery and hangout.”
Pho Zone’s soft opening is slated for October and while they get their kitchen ready, Pho Zone will have light foods along with ice cream from their other venture. Nothing is certain, but, with what they have endured, Hlee says they know now how to endure any problems that might arise.
“It does help us know if we can do it when we struggle, we can do it when we are not struggling,” she says. “If we have a low time or a slow time, we know we’ll be OK. COVID-19 hit us before, COVID-19 was the bottom of everything, but we know what to do to look ahead.”
More information about the Pho Zone relaunch can be found by visiting their Facebook page.
Evan J. Pretzer is a contributor to City Pages. He can be reached at [email protected].