When Thom Pham opened his Wondrous Azian Kitchen on Hennepin Avenue this year, it could have been the crown of a growing restaurant empire and the continuation of a great story:

Son of a Vietnamese mother and American soldier gets adopted by American family. Family helps him start a restaurant. Restaurant is a success, leading the refugee to create another, and another, and another. Fade to black, happy ending.

Life's plot line isn't always so clean, however. Now, as the enigmatic Pham has opened yet another ambitious venue, he is engaged in a vicious lawsuit against his adoptive siblings, who worked for him for free when he opened his first restaurant, Thanh Do.

The suit already spans three volumes in Hennepin County District Court. It includes accusations that family members embezzled $250,000 from him in a secret bank account. Pham also says his adoptive sisters have stolen his secret dishes and now use them at their new restaurant, A Wok in the Park, near Pham's Thanh Do. This is probably the only case file in the state that contains recipes for cranberry cream cheese wontons.

The sisters portray Pham's career arc as less than wondrous. They say that they set up the account with Pham's blessing to shield it from his mounting debts, and because Pham used the restaurant's money "on a daily basis" to pay for expenses at his now-defunct Azia and a lifestyle of fast cars and failed businesses.

Pham's adoptive sisters, Hannah Johnson, Charis Fishbein and Grace Ray, held a fundraiser Sunday to pay for escalating legal costs. Monday, Pham tried to file an order for protection against his siblings because he thinks they are bad-mouthing him on the Internet, something they deny.

Johnson sounded weary Monday when she talked about a long business relationship with her brother. "Things were a little crazy the whole time," she said. "But it wasn't until we took over Thanh Do that we found out about his spending habits. We started getting notices that the water and electricity would be shut off. Thom hasn't had a successful business except for the one he turned over to us."

Indeed, Pham is no stranger to the courts. Numerous vendors and contractors have sued him for unpaid bills, and two years after his Temple restaurant closed, he owes $75,994 in taxes. Johnson said he lost two liquor licenses.

'Never came to the rescue'

Monday, Pham sat with his lawyer at his new restaurant. If the bank account was really a "cushion" for Thanh Do, he asks, why didn't his sisters use it to pay bills when the place struggled? "They never came to the rescue," he said.

I first wrote about Pham in 2006, when Azia was hot and he was poised to open two restaurants on Lake Street. I liked him, but I also warned him that he seemed overextended and unfocused. I got him to promise he would talk to me again if his ventures failed.

Johnson thinks the adulation Pham got after starting Azia got to his ego, and led to rash decisions. "He grew up oppressed in Vietnam because he was bi-racial," she said. "He wants to prove to the world he is not a second-class citizen. He wants self worth, but that comes from inside."

A year after I profiled Pham, he was beaten up outside his restaurant by several men in what looked like a teaching moment. He never opened the Lake Street locations, Temple bombed, then he closed Azia.

Pham's attorney, Jon Breyer, said the sisters acted as though Thanh Do was theirs. Pham, as sole owner, had the right to take money from the till for other purposes. "They may have been bad decisions, but they were Tom's."

The restaurant business is fraught with sleight-of-hand financing that gets exposed when the economy tanks. In another ugly breakup this summer, we saw the town's most celebrated culinary duo, Tim McKee and Josh Thoma, part amid allegations of a money shell game between restaurants with different investors. It seems that robbing Jacques to pay Julia is almost accepted practice.

His claims 'ludicrous'

But few things are sadder than a suit between family members over a coconut curry recipe.

Andrew Zimmern, television star and former local chef, calls Pham's claims of trade secrets "ludicrous."

"The world of food, with all its infinite possibilities, is finite," he said. "I'm stunned you would sue your family over rather conventional recipes. Besides, who would want to own a recipe for cranberry wontons?"

A jury will likely decide the uniqueness of Pham's ideas.

Johnson said the sisters decided to talk to the media to counter Pham's allegations against them.

"When Thom opened Azia we were very proud of him," she said. "Now we are no longer a family."

"It didn't have to happen," countered Pham. "I still love them, no question about that."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702