On Christmas Day in 2012, Helena and Khai Phung's Treasure Restaurant burned to the ground. The restaurant that supported them and their two children was no longer, and Khai and Helena turned to odd jobs to make ends meet.
It's taken five years for their son Tony to convince them to return to the kitchen.
When I visited their new restaurant, Grain of Rice, located on the western fringe of Edmonton, Helena came out of the kitchen to speak to me about the food. She also spoke of her son. The pride in her voice was undeniable.
Helena and Khai are still the ones cooking, but Tony is the one responsible for all the legwork — from securing a space to arranging construction and all the minute details in-between and beyond.
The menu is a shadow of its former self, condensed to one tenth of the items. Dishes are made with organic and locally-sourced ingredients where and when possible.
The current lunch menu has only seven items with four more specials and two desserts written on a chalk board. The food offered is Chinese and Vietnamese with a heavy accent on fresh and light.
Lineups have been frequent in these first few weeks, but on the day I went, only a handful of the 40 seats were taken.
Hints of star anise and cinnamon were noticeable but we did have to doctor it up with a dollop or two of hoisin, a squirt of lime and some extra basil to give it more depth. Raw flank steak, cut thin and served on top is tender and flavourful, unlike most other pho meats in the city.
The firecracker spring rolls are filled with ground chicken, taro root, onion and carrots and made fresh, on site, each day.
The lettuce that comes with the dish is in the form of a salad, and not leaves of lettuce to be wrapped around the roll, as one would understand based on the description of the dish. Confusion aside, the salad was light and refreshing with a dressing of rice vinegar, Barrhead honey and sea salt.
The Phung's OG (Original Gangster) Bowl is based on a traditional dish usually served during special occasions. It is a large portion of fluffy rice, tiny scallops and a heaping helping of tobiko (flying fish roe). Once everything is mixed together, the result is a buttery combination of land and sea. A serving all to oneself though, is overwhelming. This dish is best shared with a few people.
In fact, most of the dishes here are best shared. Bring friends.