The Student News Site of California State University, Stanislaus


The Student News Site of California State University, Stanislaus


The Student News Site of California State University, Stanislaus


Pho Americana: A Look at a Local Restaurant, Both its Food and its Challenges


The storefront of Pho Americana, an independently-owned restaurant on Crowell Rd, right next to CSU Stanislaus (Signal Photo/Marc Anthony Briones)

Pho Americana is a Vietnamese-inspired restaurant with options for food such as pho, cold noodle salads, Banh Mi sandwiches, and fries. You can also get beer on tap and soda within the Coca-Cola family.

Camryn Carpenter tells her story of her first experience with the restaurant.

She recalls looking at the menu, and the choices were things she had never heard of before, cold noodle salads, rice bowls, Banh Mi sandwiches, and different types of pho.

She says she looked back at her friend and he reminds her what they were there for—her first-ever bowl of soup.

The options are vast; shredded chicken breast, sliced meatball, wonton, crispy pork belly, rare steak, braised brisket, shrimp, BBQ pork char siu, veggie, Chili garlic tofu, and even options to mix the meat.

She looked back at her friend, who said he was going to get the chicken pho.

According to her, he said, “I’m really craving chicken and I think you should try it too, it’ll be a good start.”

So she ordered the shredded chicken pho and the cashier asks her if she’s a Stanislaus State student. She said she was and showed the cashier her ID and got 10% off her meal.

She gave Carpenter her number along with a cup for soda.

After grabbing her drink she sat down with her friends and laughed about how this is going to be her first bowl of soup ever.

“I don’t believe you, you had to have had soup before,” she remembers a friend saying.

Time passes. Within 10 minutes, a man comes out with two bowls of pho on the tray. I can tell one of them is mine. He asks us if it’s our first time eating pho.

“It’s mine,” she remembers saying.

“That’s great, I hope you like it!” the server said.

He then continues to describe the sauces on all of the trays on the table, which all add a level of spice to the soup.

After he left, it was the moment she has been waiting for all day.

Her friend showed me how to gather the food onto the soup spoon and told her to try and eat everything including the broth,

“It’s the best way to taste the soup as a whole” she recalls him saying.

She did what he told her to. She held her mouth open and it fell right in. It was delicious.

She later discovered the server was the owner of the restaurant. Jo was his name.

Jo Sisemore is the man running Pho Americana. The owner, the cook, the dishwasher, and everything in-between. Talking to him I can see how much he loves his restaurant and the people who come to eat there.

He grew up in the valley, Manteca to be exact, and started his restaurant journey in 1996. He worked in multiple restaurants doing many jobs such as dishwashing, serving, and cooking. 

Sisemore is the second owner of Pho Americana. The original owner, a buddy of his, opened Pho Americana in June of 2016 and gave it to Jo after two years.

Sisemore was approached by his friend to take the reins of the restaurant, and after thinking about it with his husband, he decided to take the offer and move forward with taking over.

Sisemore said he has always wanted to own a restaurant and was excited to move forward with the next step of his life.

He works seven days a week for around 12 hours a day, and he’s been doing that for about five years.

Sisemore has not changed the interior of the restaurant and he is happy he did not have to design it himself.

“Aesthetic wise it has pretty much stayed the exact same because I don’t have an eye for that and I was happy that [the original owner] did,” he said.

The menu didn’t change during his first couple of months owning the restaurant because he wanted to see what worked and what didn’t work.

Over time, Sisemore wanted to improve practices that would help speed things up and edit the menu down to things he saw people wanted more.

“We have added a lot of things, we have changed some of our cooking practices and little things here and there that we have evolved upon,” he said.

The original concept however has not changed. The Vietnamese-American fusion stayed because that is was Sisemore liked. Growing up, his stepdad was Asian, half Pacific Islander and half Japanese, and that has influenced his cooking and the items that make it onto the menu.

Sisemore likes to describe his food as “authentic yes, traditional no.” The way he makes the broth is very traditional, by cleaning the bones and putting them into the pho with the roasted vegetables and spices.

“When you go to other pho restaurants there are several things you might find on the menu or the way they present it which would be somewhat traditional, we don’t necessarily do that, but as far as the way we make our stuff yes,” he said.

He laughed. “A lot of people will ask us because I’m a white guy who owns a pho restaurant… I get it, it’s a little off-putting, but it doesnt mean we won’t do things in an authentic way,” he said.

The original owner was also white, he was white Portuguese. Pho Americana has never been owned by a Vietnamese person but the concept is that the restaurant is something different.

Sisemore explained that when he goes to other Pho restaurants the menus are always similar and he wants Pho Americana to be a different experience.

“We don’t make any apologies for it, we don’t tell people they’re gonna get the same experience at say another Pho restaurant… they do something really well, we doing something really well, it’s similar but different. We thought there was room in the market to express that,” he said.

Since taking over the biggest challenge for him was COVID-19. Jo had owned the restaurant for over a year before the virus took over the world. Everything he thought he knew about the restaurant industry flew out the window and he had to create a new plan for his restaurant to survive the hard times.

He opened up their doors when he thought it was safe to, and closed them when he thought it wasn’t.

He said that taking only to-go orders and not allowing people inside was hard but doable.

With his and his customers’ safety in mind, the other hard part was getting his ingredients.

Prices fluctuate, what he was able to buy last week was not available this week, and some items stopped being sold all altogether.

He said that it all happened at once and it was a lot to deal with.

“You were in it as you were learning it,” he said.

Along with COVID he also had to learn how to keep track of labor, payroll, and money. He emphasizes that it was the first restaurant he had ever owned, so all this was new to him.

Working on the business side of things was an experience he had to learn about. He was quickly able to learn so he could focus on what he loves most, cooking.

I asked him about his recipes. He says that many of them came from the original owner and the new items came from asking his staff what they wanted to see on the menu.

With their suggestions, he experiments in the kitchen and creates new items he hopes people enjoy. Jo also knows that he has items he can never stop making.

“The number one thing that we have not changed in all of the years here has been our crispy pork belly. It is a staple for us and as long as I can foresee it we will always have that one on the menu,” he said.

The crispy pork belly is an item that sells out before the day is over.

It is an item in such high demand that Sisemore has to put a sign on the door saying that they are sold out for the day. He says he has seen customers read the sign and turn around.

Items that they have added are tacos, phorritos, brisket, and have also taken some items off the menu.

These items have been taken off for one of two reasons, either not a lot of people were ordering it or the ingredients for the item were no longer available.

Sisemore’s favorite food item switches between two items, he says, depending on the weather. 

One of them is the cold noodle salad, something he can eat every day. He says it fills him up without the feeling the need to take a nap. The second item is the tacos, which he also likes a lot.

Within the restaurant, Jo hosts events for non-profit organizations.

The last event he held was for Elite Family Services, a group home for foster youth. He was able to help them raise $850.

He does this because he wants to participate in community outreach.

Organizations come to him to run events at his restaurant, the most popular of which is Drag Bingo, which he tries to host at least once a month.

For Drag Bingo, he invites a drag performer to come in and he and his husband provide all the bingo materials.

“We don’t charge the organization to host and all the money that is raised goes directly to the organization. The only thing we charge for is regular food and drink that the consumers are going to be here for that night that they are going to have,” he said.

Last year, in 2022, he hosted about 8 to 9 organizations and he raised over $10,000 total for those organizations. The average night raises $800 to $1,100.

“That’s something that I’m really proud of that we’re doing as far as community outreach for different non-profits,” Sisemore said.

He said that as long as the organization is LGBTQ+ friendly and is okay with how Pho Americana runs the events, then they are down to host and help raise money.

He says that the events are a lot of fun and are reservation-only with a cap of 35 people.

When Sisemore says his favorite part of running a restaurant is customer interaction. He says he’s someone who likes to talk to people, so anytime he gets the chance to interact with customers he does.

He has regulars and he likes to catch up on their lives, their milestones, and even family. A challenge he gives himself is remembering his regular’s names and their go-to orders, and he has a lot of fun with his workers playing this game.

Getting to know Sisemore more personally, he talked about himself and his partner.

They have been together for 22 years with no kids and 3 dogs.

“Those are our kids and they are spoiled,” he said.

His partner works with foster youth and has been doing that since before they met.

Before owning his restaurant, Sisemore used to teach culinary arts for a couple of years in Modesto.

Sisemore is a pastry chef by trade, but considers himself a savory chef as well.

Before doing that he worked in many restaurants running kitchens, dishwashing, and all the other jobs within the kitchen. He has also worked in a couple of different bakeries.

Sisemore had about ten years of cooking under his belt before he attended a culinary school around the age of 26 or 27 in 2006 or 2007.

He said it was cool to finally understand why he was taught the way he was in the kitchens. He always knew how to do stuff, but never understood why he had to do it.

“My chefs would say, ‘Do this, do it this way…’ When I went to culinary school they showed me why we do it certain ways and how to manipulate certain things, and how these three products can be very similar so you can think about them in different ways and how you can change this one item into four different things, product utilization, all that different stuff,” he said.

After some time, Sisemore ended up going back to teach at The Institute of Modesto, and he taught there for about 8 years. He taught in the baking program, introductory classes, culinary history, safety, and sanitation.

At Pho Americana, Sisemore’s work days are about 14-15 hours.

Sisemore says what gets him up every day is that he loves his job, he likes the industry, and it’s something he has always done.

“As long as I can physically do it I’ll still continue to do it,” he said.

When Sisemore thinks about the future of Pho Americana, he sees it maybe expanding to a second restaurant, but his personal dream is moving to a larger location.

Sisemore says he would like a larger location because that means he can add items to the menu he normally would not be able to in the place it currently resides, due to restrictions on tools and storage.

Sisemore says what matters most to him is wanting to feel like he is a part of the process. He does not dream of having tons of restaurants.

“I don’t want to lose the connection between my employees and my customers and lose the heartbeat of what I feel this place is to a lot of people… it’s not in me to be an absentee owner,” he said.

One of Sisemore’s employees, Carter Lucas, talked about their experience working for Pho Americna.

They first heard of the place at an LGTBTQ+ youth group run by Sisemore.

The youth group is called “The Place”, which meets at the restaurant every second and fourth Sunday of the month.

Carter was looking for a job and since they already knew Sisemore, they were able to ask him for a job and he said yes.

Carter lauded Sisemore’s abilities as a boss.

“He’s super chill, very understanding and I really like working for him. Honestly, he is probably one of the better bosses I’ve had in my time,” they said.

Carter’s favorite menu item is the porkbelly tacos, which sells out incredibly fast, usually during the lunch rush.

Carter says that they wish more people would come during the summer. Many of the people they serve are students and when classes are over things slow down. 

“I wish more people knew about this place,” they said.

Sisemore loves his connection with his customers and loves feedback from people.

He says that he likes that he can tell his customers exactly what is in his food, just in case they ask for allergies, and that if there is a change that can be made he can do it.

Sisemore said that he loves the support he has gotten, and says he speaks for his friends who own other independent restaurants. He specifically appreciates customers who ate at independent restaurants during the pandemic.

Sisemore appreciates that he is right next to the college. Sisemore says that it gives him the opportunity to see students going to school, and has even seen some students graduate, go on to find success, and come back and catch up with him.

“For me, it has always been that sense of community and seeing all the familiar faces and hearing what they like and don’t like, I’m not afraid of that,” he said.

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Pho Americana: A Look at a Local Restaurant, Both its Food and its Challenges