‘The best pho in town’

New Kings owners Nu and Michael Zosel give customers “permission to slurp” their savory pho. Credit: Photo by Jim Walsh

In March, when the Heavy Table’s influential food critic Ted Held wrote about Kings Wine Bar’s newest addition to the menu — pho and other Vietnamese delights — the review translated to, in the words of Kings’ chef Nu Zosel and her budding legion of South Minneapolis foodie fans, “the best pho in town.”

And while the likes of Quang and Vo’s Vietnamese may have something to say about that boast, for this long-time pho fan and long-gone former Kings employee but eternally good customer, Nu and her fellow chef Warren Seta’s feast is a delicious, healthy, spicy, savory, salty, satisfying and altogether addicting mixture of fragrances, vegetables, textures and broth that’s as good as any pho anywhere.

Seriously. Go forth and devour, South Minneapolis, for rarely is home-cooking this warm and inviting, nicely living up to the idea that love is a necessary ingredient in cooking — and all so readily available at the romantic little bistro on the corner of 46th & Grand. 

“My mom, she’s a great cook and when I was growing up, I just keep watching her and she just keeps feeding me all the good dishes all the time,” said Nu the other day, in between chatting up customers about her meals. “I learned how to make it and I learned that cooking is an art and that you have to cook with your heart. My mom is a very health-conscious person, and that is the thing that people love about my pho.

“At first, they say, ‘Kings is making pho?’ They don’t really believe that. But some people were brave enough to try it, and they just loved it. So many people just say it’s so light and flavorful, and we have so many customers now who call themselves ‘The Pho Lovers.’ So many people say they have gone so many places in the Twin Cities and that this is the best pho they’ve ever had and one guy said he’s been all around Southeast Asia and that this is the best he’s ever had. That was a really honor for me.”

Good energy, good people, and family have always been at the heart of Kings, and Nu and her husband are keeping the good thing that super sisters Samantha Loesch and Molly Duffin started when they opened Kings in 2009, to long lines filled with folks happy to finally have beer and wine in the neighborhood. With assistant manager Andrew Truong handling the day-to-day operations and veteran Minneapolis barkeep angel Rachel Christine behind the bar most nights, Kings should get big props for its organic reinvention. The Heavy Table review:

“A few months ago, right around the same time that Michael and Nu Zosel bought the joint, a faux-neon sign with a bowl of pho went up in the window of Kings Wine Bar. We admit to having been skeptical.

“Finally this week, and at the insistence of a reliable tipster, we stopped in, and boy, was our skepticism misplaced! We were rewarded with a bowl of pho ($12 with meatballs or brisket, $14 for ‘meat lovers’) that was light and sweet, deeply infused with star anise, and more homemade in character than any of the well-known shops up Nicollet Avenue. The nearly fat-free broth was poured over a tangle of noodles and arrived already garnished with basil, bean sprouts, and peppers. The brisket was sliced impossibly thin and served still cooking in the steaming broth. It left us infused with hope for the future of Kings.”

Kings doesn’t even show up on lists for Best Vietnamese Restaurant, but as Paul Douglas reminds us, June is monsoon season in Minnesota, and it’s so good to have a sweet sanctuary where you can hunker down with a bowl of soup on a rainy night.

“Everything is all about homemade, and we start everything from scratch and all the vegetables are fresh and I go shopping almost everyday because I want to keep it fresh,” said Nu. “When I would bring my food to work, or my son’s hockey parties and graduation party, people would say they loved my food but I thought they were just being nice. I had no idea. And now that’s my passion.

“I love to cook, and to have a restaurant and seeing people enjoy my food is just wonderful and the people in this neighborhood are just amazing. They are very foodie and health-conscious and nice and you just can’t find a better neighborhood than this. They have been so supportive of us, and we love it.”

“It’s been an amazing ride so far,” said Michael. “We both work in the medical device industry, and I bring my training expertise and management experience, and she brings her research and development technician and testing experience. So while we’re developing new products, it’s done with pretty much a scientific perspective. It’s so electric, and the customers here really make it electric.”

“We’re thinking about starting pho eating classes in the fall, when it’s cold,” said Nu. “It’s a very aromatic soup, so you want to get up close to it. So many people eat pho, but if you eat it the right way, it tastes even better. We want to give people permission to pick up the bowl, and give them permission to slurp.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]