A Madison restaurateur who is calling his Vietnamese noodle restaurant Pho King Good has no intention of changing its name after learning it includes words that sound obscene when spoken together.
“He didn’t mean to say a dirty word, that’s not his meaning or his main purpose,” said Shuai Yuan, who translated for his friend Ting Cai Zhou, who speaks little English and owns the proposed restaurant.
Ting insists he had no idea that the name was controversial until a reporter pointed out that “pho” — the popular Vietnamese soup pronounced “fuh” — plus “king” sounds to English speakers like an expletive.
“We are gentlemen,” Shuai said for an animated Ting. “We are not rude like that.”
Ting said he took it from a California restaurant that does “a very good business.”
Variations on the name Pho King have popped up for Vietnamese restaurants across the country in recent years. There’s a Pho King Awesome in Waukesha.
Pho Keene Great, a food truck in Keene, New Hampshire, which planned to open a brick-and-mortar space with the same name, drew controversy late last year after the city manager called the restaurant’s “coming soon” sign offensive, the Washington Post reported in January.
In Madison, the Alcohol License Review Committee wields the most power over restaurants in terms of granting and denying liquor licenses. But the name of a business wouldn’t be a basis to deny it a license, said Jennifer Zilavy, Madison assistant city attorney.
“The city would have no basis for requesting Pho King to change their name just because it sounds like a ‘bad’ word,” Zilavy said.
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Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer, who sits on the ALRC, said the last time he remembers a restaurant name getting this kind of attention was when a Cheba Hut franchise opened on Gilman Street in 2012 with cannabis-themed sandwich names.
The Sh*tty Barn, a live music venue established in 2010 in Spring Green, often draws snickers because of its name. It sometimes appears with an asterisk in its name, even on its own website.
Meanwhile, Ting plans to open Pho King Good at 600 Williamson St. within the next two months. The location is where the 35-year-old Chinese noodle restaurant Wah Kee was until late July, when its owner retired after 32 years at that location.
The interior is being remodeled, Ting said. The menu includes a dozen types of pho and many other soups, salads, appetizers, rice dishes, noodle dishes, Vietnamese crispy rice crepes, chicken congee, desserts and bubble tea.
Ting, 50, who is from Fujian Province in China, came to the United States 25 years ago. He owned restaurants in New York and Ohio before coming to Madison five years ago “for business.”
“Every restaurant he owned was very, very busy,” Shuai said.
Ting bought the second-floor State Street restaurant Soga Shabu Shabu in 2015 from its original owners, and moved it across the street two years later. He sold Soga last year and in February it reopened as Taste of Sichuan.
Ting, who lives on the West Side, spent the past year getting his new Chinese restaurant, Szechuan Garden, open at 6654 Mineral Point Road, in what used to be Dahmen’s Pizza Place. The space in Clock Tower Court was formerly a Hooters restaurant and bar.
As for Pho King Good, Ting and Shuai insist the name was innocent.
“He wants the restaurant name to mean ‘We are the King who are good at making noodles,’ “ Shuai said for Ting.