Although Sara Lee and her husband, Pat, opened their twist on Vietnamese cuisine a little over a year ago, it’s already caught fire and spurred plans for the restaurant’s expansion elsewhere in Austin.
PhoNatic, near the intersection of Anderson Lane and Burnet Road, will grow to become three brick-and-mortar restaurants by the end of the year. In February, Lee said, a second one will open at the Southpark Meadows shopping center in far south Austin, off Slaughter Lane, and a third is in the works for a summertime opening at a shopping center still being built in Cedar Park.
The Lees, who also own a Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, one of a franchise called Pho Saigon, noticed that many of the places offering Vietnamese fare are very traditional.
"Pat saw that Vietnamese was the only food that hadn’t really gone mainstream yet, and that’s when he came up with the PhoNatic concept, our own spin on Vietnamese cuisine," Lee said. "Our menu is authentic, but in a modern setting."
Indeed, the decor in PhoNatic suggests that it’s nothing likeTam Deli and Cafe, a North Lamar Vietnamese restaurant that’s been around since the late 1990s. But make no mistake — like Tam Deli, PhoNatic offers all the staples of a Vietnamese menu, such as pho and vermicelli and rice dishes, albeit with some twists. For example, the most popular item, Lee said, is Pat’s banh mi slider that comes on a steamed bun, rather than the typical French bread.
The couple’s three kids often ask for a meal at their restaurant, but after spending a week working there, Pat in the kitchen and Sara sometimes up at the front with customers, both desire a break to dine at other local restaurants. They’ll take the kids to favorites like Threadgill’s on North Lamar Boulevard or Phil’s Ice House on Burnet Road, which has a playground that Sara Lee calls the "best invention ever" because it gives parents the chance "to actually finish a meal."
If the Lees aren’t at PhoNatic or their weekly date night, they’re with their kids. The parents like to take them to the family-friendly shows occasionally playing at ACL Live, a music venue where the Fresh Beat Band, a group that got its start on Nickelodeon, has performed. Other venues the Lees go to that offer shows for kids are the Cedar Park Center and the Frank Erwin Center, which is hosting "Sesame Street Live" from Feb. 14 to 17.
But they aren’t away from PhoNatic for too long. With a family in the grocery store and restaurant business, serving up good food is in their blood — at least in Pat’s. Pat’s father, who moved his family from Vietnam when Pat was 4, is the founder of the MT Supermarket, a 55,000-square-foot Asian grocery center on North Lamar Boulevard that originated from a much smaller mom-and-pop shop. Pat’s brother is the owner of another Asian restaurant in the area.
Sara Lee is certainly partial to her husband’s cooking. She said she is always impressed with anyone who can pull out random ingredients from the fridge, toss them into a pot and come out with a gourmet meal, and that’s what Pat does easily.
"He’s way more of a chef than I am," she said with a laugh.