When Pho Lan first opened its doors way back in 1994, it was one of only four Vietnamese restaurants in all of Richmond. A quick search on Zomato today yields some 24 results, but I’m pretty sure there are more. Pho lovers certainly have options, but they keep coming back to this humble eatery on No. 3 and Granville.

Pho Lan

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

Pho Lan doesn’t look like much from the outside. You could drive past it on your commute to work every day and never know it was there. But you should know it is there. Because they serve up a mean bowl of rare beef and Vietnamese noodles. Our very own Tara Lee recently named it one of the best pho restaurants in the city, calling it an “established crowd favourite.” She’s certainly not wrong!

Pho Lan will always hold a very special place in my heart because it is the birthplace of Dot Com Pho. Allow me to provide a little back story. Back in the early part of the 2000s, local entrepreneur John Chow created a small meetup group for people who were interested in making money on the Internet.

“Dot Com Pho started out as Midnight Golden,” says Chow, who now resides in Orange County, California. “Myself, Carl Nelson and Ed Lau would often go to a restaurant called Golden Award for midnight snacks. The problem with Midnight Golden was it didn’t really expand from the three of us because no one wanted to meet up at midnight.”

“When Carl moved to Hong Kong, I started doing the lunches at Pho Lan. We were getting more people attending because it was held at lunch hours on a Saturday. It just grew from there.”

Pho Lan

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

Dot Com Pho became a weekly routine for many of us and Pho Lan was our home away from home. Gary Ng, founder of iPhoneinCanada.ca, remembers the “fantastic discussion and networking that helped grow [his] business. The best part was meeting awesome people and making some great friends.”

My first Dot Com Pho was some time in 2006. We started shooting videos of our meetups and posting them on the Internet a couple years after that. It really started to attract quite the crowd, including out-of-town Internet marketers and bloggers who had heard about us. In this video from May 2008, you can see how we took up the entire middle section of Pho Lan (note: this video was taken before we were introduced to HD, so please excuse the quality!).

We talked business. We cracked jokes. We featured a gadget of the week. And many of the people I met through Dot Com Pho are still my best friends today.

Pho Lan

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

Of course, the great food at Pho Lan cannot be ignored. I usually order a bowl of pho with rare beef and tripe ($10.00 for an extra-large bowl, pictured above), along with the extra crispy pork spring roll ($3 per roll) and a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee ($4, pictured below). Most of us got the iced coffee at Dot Com Pho and, on particularly well-attended lunches, Pho Lan would actually run out of the little stainless steel coffee filters!

Pho Lan

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

The appeal and history of this “hole in the wall” fostered the online careers of many “dot com moguls,” even if the service was never quite perfect. Or maybe it was because the service was never quite perfect that had us returning week after week. Affiliate marketer Greg Morgan remembers there was one employee who would “always get the number wrong. Number 11? Nope, I had a 3. Yup, this is number 3.”

Even so, “we kept coming back. It was that good.”

The atmosphere of Pho Lan was really defined by the personality of owner Lan Kha. He always seemed frustrated or angry at something (or someone).

Professional photographer and fellow 365 Days of Dining food blogger Ed Lau looks back. “Pho Lan was the first place I had pho. I was like 14 or so and have been going since. Lan was the grumpiest guy I’ve ever seen run a restaurant.”

Despite Lan’s presumed grumpiness, there was always a crowd. Perhaps his grumpiness was also part of the appeal? Regardless, Lan has since mellowed out considerably, likely because his son Michael now handles most of the day-to-day operations.

Pho Lan

Spicy Bun Bo Hue soup. Photo credit: Michael Kwan

You can always expect to get one of the best bowls of Vietnamese pho when you come to Pho Lan, whether you play it safe with rare beef and meatballs or you’re more adventurous with tripe and tendon.

For something a little different, a bowl of the spicy Bún bò Huế soup ($7.95 for a small bowl, pictured above) is an excellent choice. The usual beef is replaced by Vietnamese ham and pork hock, served in a soup that’s sour, spicy, sweet and fragrant, all at the same time. The dish originates from the central Vietnamese city of Huế, from which it derives its name.

Pho Lan

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

During all those years that we went to Pho Lan for Dot Com Pho, if I didn’t order my usual bowl of pho, I’d probably get the vermicelli bowl with grilled meat ($9.75, chicken, beef, or pork – chicken version pictured above) and a spring roll. It’s perfect for a hot summer day when you don’t want to hover over a bowl of soup.

Pho Lan

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

You can further extend your meal with a choice of several appetizers. The grilled minced shrimp on sugar cane (above, $3.75 each) is a savory treat, served with nuoc cham sauce, made with fish sauce, lime juice and sugar for dipping. Bite off the minced shrimp meat and then chew on the sugar cane to extract its juice.

Pho Lan

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

The deep fried spring roll (above, $3 each) is a popular favourite at Pho Lan and also among many of the Dot Com Pho attendees, myself included. The version at Pho Lan is fried just a little longer than other Vietnamese restaurants, making for a crispy skin that’s just a little bit harder than most.

Pho Lan

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

The freshly rolled salad roll (pictured above, $5.50) comes in a variety of several different meats, including the standard prawn, as well as beef (as shown), minced pork, chicken, or shredded pork. The mix of flavors and textures make for terrifically balanced bites.

Pho Lan’s menu offers authentic Vietnamese dishes and the quality here is to be commended. It’s remarkable. Through the years, loyal customers keep coming back. During my most recent visit to Pho Lan, at least two of the other patrons had been coming to Lan’s for over 20 years. Even when customers and offices move, they make the journey back for another bowl of noodles.

That’s all going to be changing very soon. The block on which Pho Lan currently sits is set for redevelopment within the next three years. Michael Kha has been looking for a new location for over two years already, but the costs can be overwhelming. Even if (and when) they move, it just won’t be the same.

Pho Lan

Pho Lan’s back entrance. Photo credit: Michael Kwan

If you want the authentic Pho Lan experience, you need to go while the restaurant’s still at its current address. Park in the back and go in through the rear entrance, taking in the smells of the kitchen as you pass through to the dining room. Know that you’re walking through the same hallway as many a Dot Com Pho veteran has walked before you.

Pho Lan is located at 6950 Number 3 Road, across from Richmond City Hall. It’s open seven days a week from 10:30 am to 10:00 pm. They’re cash only and yes, you can still find #71 on the menu.