Jason Su, 14, a freshman at Alhambra High School enjoys a bowl of pho during lunch on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. Alhambra Unified has added ramen and pho to their lunch menus at its high school in order cater to its diverse student base. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)
Last school year, Alhambra High student Krystal Li ate spicy chicken sandwiches from the cafeteria every day.
They were good enough, the now-junior said, and she didn’t have to worry about bringing lunch. This school year, the cafeteria started serving pho — the Vietnamese noodle soup — twice a week, and Li said she has been hooked ever since.
Students at Alhambra High School can now enjoy bowls of pho during lunch on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. Alhambra Unified has added ramen and pho to their lunch menus at its high school in order cater to its diverse student base. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)
“It’s more like what I like to eat,” Li, 16, said. “It’s surprising that they’ve got pho now, and it’s really good.”
This school year, Alhambra, Mark Keppel and San Gabriel high schools began offering a pho and ramen bar twice a week, respectively, as well as a nacho bar once a week, all of which supplements traditional grab-and-go cafeteria options. The new lunch options are becoming increasingly popular and have begun attracting the attention of other nearby school districts.
How Pho and Ramen Got on the Menu
When Alhambra Unified’s food and nutrition services department began to notice high school lunch participation dropping below that of its K-8 elementary schools, staff members began looking to add new options students would find more appealing, said Vivien Watts, the department’s executive director.
“We tried to serve popular items — pizza, burgers, orange chicken with rice — but we thought we should do something a little bit different,” Watts said.
Watts and her staff had visited Temple City High and learned it was serving pho, though the broth was purchased from a nearby favorite restaurant, Golden Deli. However, the staff there were only purchasing enough to serve 100 portions, and Temple City Unified only has the one high school, so that model wouldn’t be duplicated easily at Alhambra, Watts said.
It was up to Watts and company to develop their own recipe, she said.
Over the summer, William Fong, the district director of food and nutrition services who focuses on operations, tinkered with ingredients and had district staff members taste test different broths until consensus formed: They had their recipe.
Given strict state and federal nutrition guidelines, all dishes have to be low in sodium and be well rounded with vegetables and whole grains, Fong said. The pho is served with a side of crispy wheat noodles to fill that whole grain requirement.
The trouble, said Judy Huffaker, another director of food and nutrition services who focuses on nutrition, is getting students to eat well at home.
“Kids eat healthy meals at school, but if their parents reward them with McDonald’s or soda, in their minds they’ll think that’s better food,” Huffaker said. “The whole community needs to work together to reinforce good eating habits.”
Getting the New Options to the Cafeteria
Longtime district cafeteria manager Rudy Molina had run high school cafeterias for years before moving to the district’s central kitchen. He was asked to return to a campus — this time Alhambra High — to ensure the success of the new offerings.
“It’s definitely something different for us, but it’s neat, though,” Molina said. “It’s worth it because the kids really like it.”
Of the new lineup, the pho bar is the most popular, with the nacho bar coming in second and ramen third, Molina said. His hunch is that the wheat noodles served with the ramen, while healthier for students, are driving down its popularity.
Molina and his staff prepare 250 portions of ramen on the two days of the week it’s served and 350 portions of pho on the two days it’s served. He may bump the pho number up to 400 when the weather gets cooler.
Molina starts making the 10 gallons of pho broth needed for 350 portions at 6:30 a.m. and cooks it for about five hours. He very briefly cooks thinly sliced rib eye beef in the broth and gently boils rice noodles to ensure that they don’t become mushy.
Students pick up cups pre-portioned with noodles and beef and walk up to a bar featuring expected pho accouterments: green onions, cilantro, bean sprouts, sliced jalapenos and limes. After that, they walk up to beverage dispensers filled with hot broth and can garnish their bowls with hoisin or sriracha hot sauce. Molina said the cafeteria goes through four bottles of each with every service.
What’s Next on the Menu
The success of the pho bar has given the district ideas for future offerings — including more noodle options and possibly a pasta bar, Watts said. While the only bar offering that serves vegetarians is the nacho bar, a pasta bar could add another vegetarian option, Watts said.
In addition, Watts said she and her staff intend to visit South Pasadena High to check out its Korean taco bar.
Meanwhile, El Monte Union High School has visited Alhambra high schools twice now to see the pho bar, and Ontario-Montclair School District has scheduled a visit to do the same, Watts said.
“The food service directors network is very strong,” Watts said. “If you see someone doing something different, they’re more than willing to share their recipes. We don’t compete — we just try to serve our kids as best we can.”