You may not ordinarily think of coffee and pho in the same sentence — but you might after a visit to Saltlight Station, a new coffee shop in Allen at 1501 S. Greenville Ave., featuring coffee beverages and Vietnamese food, including a pho made with prime rib.
Saltlight — an abbreviation of "salt of the earth, light of the world," from the Sermon on the Mount — is a joint project between Nhatha Nol-Mantia, an entrepreneurial young woman who oversees the coffee shop; and chef Robert Kealiinohomoku, who oversees the restaurant.
Fans of cooking shows might recognize chef Kealiinohomoku, a former chef at the Four Seasons in Maui who has appeared on The Food Network twice, on celebrity chef Ming Tsai's East Meets West show, and with chef Wolfgang Puck showcasing Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.
Kealiinohomoku has been friends with Nol-Mantia and her husband for a decade. When the opportunity arose to open a restaurant, he willingly moved from Hawaii to Allen to help them get the restaurant off the ground.
"I'm from Maui, I was raised on that island," Kealiinohomoku says. "But we always talked about opening a restaurant, and the path opened for us to come here. Hopefully we are able to put Saltlight on the map with food food and service."
The menu features five pho options, all using top ingredients, no MSG. There is a "Texan" pho with a combination of thinly-sliced rib eye, brisket, and house-made beef meatballs; shrimp pho with vegetables; char-grilled chicken; and char-grilled tofu and vegetables in vegetable broth. For $1 extra, you can get a spicy lemongrass broth.
The prime rib pho has been a major draw; they also do a prime rib banh mi. "We use a high grade of meat, and we don't slow roast it," he says. "I put on a garlic and herb crust which I call a 'mud.' It's a savory marinade. The meat marinates for two days, and then we roast it for 90 minutes. I cook it on a high heat to sear in the juices and get it to a nice medium rare. Everybody raves about that prime rib."
There are summer rolls; banh mi sandwiches with choice of pork, chicken, or tofu; a noodle salad; a rice bowl; and an unusual fried rice with bacon and shrimp.
The coffee bar includes nitro cold brew, iced lattes, and Vietnamese iced coffee; and a small selection of boba tea drinks with flavors such as mango and lychee.
Nol-Mantia says she always wanted to open a coffee shop, even to the point of drawing up a business plan while she was still in college. "And then I began to make noodles at home because my husband gets headaches from MSG and I wanted to make him an alternative," she says. "Everyone liked my recipes so much that my family encouraged me to open a place."
They took over what had been a gas station which was vacant for many years. The space is now a tasteful yet cheerful study in white with red and black accents, including a polished red counter and chic red leatherette chairs.
"It was pretty run down and quite a project to renovate," she says. "But the area we're in doesn't have too many options for places to go. If you want to meet someone, all you have in the vicinity is a McDonald's. I thought it would be nice to have a place to hang out."
In preparation for a grand opening event, Saltlight will close down for a week, from February 26-March 3, with the opening party to take place March 4-6. Meanwhile, the locals have already given their thumbs up.
"I'm joyful that the local community and neighbors have dropped by," she says. "I appreciate Allen residents, they're so supportive of independent businesses. But it's also a great thing to go from seeing your neighbors and now there's this place where you talk to them, too. That's been the best part."