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Newly open Pho Towda in Fair Oaks puts innovative spin on traditional Vietnamese cuisine

A different kind of Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Towda, has taken over the former Pomodoro Pizza at 12151 Fairfax Towne Center.

Co-owners and brothers-in-law Nhan Nguyen and Chi Phan moved into the shopping center after selling their original restaurant Pho Bytes (11211 Lee Hwy), which was just a few miles away. The duo sought a fresh start after experiencing complications with their previous third partner and the restaurant’s setup.

“The kitchen [at Pho Bytes] was run down so bad, and we couldn’t afford to renovate the kitchen, so we sold that, and we build a new one here,” Phan said.

After a difficult, long renovation process, Pho Towda finally welcomed customers for a soft opening from July 10 to July 13.

Nguyen, who also owns a cybersecurity company, says Pho Towda staff were “overwhelmed” by the customers that arrived after a friend advertised the soft opening in Northern Virginia Foodies, a Facebook group with over 100,000 members.

“We didn’t expect to have that many people show up for two, three days,” Nguyen said. “…We [sold] out all the food on the first day, and we had to close an hour early, and then the second day, the same thing.”

Unprepared for so many customers, the restaurant descended into chaos. Customers complained about long wait times, as young, inexperienced servers struggled to handle the rush, and the kitchen, led by Phan, became backed up with constant orders, Nguyen says.

After three days, the pair knew they had to regroup and adjust their strategy, so they shut down and delayed their grand opening to Monday, July 17. They worked to implement the feedback they received from friends, family and customers — namely, improving wait times.

“We had to look at how to improve our process,” Nguyen said. “…We did a taste test, and we [re-trained] all the servers to make sure that they knew all the food inside and out.”

Since reopening, Nguyen says operations have been “a lot smoother,” though they had to forgo some beloved practices, such as offering hand-cut noodles, to shorten wait times.

Pho Towda cooks “authentic Vietnamese food” with a modern American “twist,” specializing in banh mi and pho, according to Nguyen. Its name comes from the signature dish, pho tho da, a noodle soup served in a hot stone bowl.

“A lot of customer request hot soup…so I kept thinking and come up with the hot stone bowl,” Phan, the head chef and innovator behind Pho Towda’s menu, said. “It takes at least 10, 15 minutes to heat the stone bowl and make it hot, and it keeps the soup hot for longer.”

Unlike most pho typically served at a Vietnamese restaurant, the broth and raw toppings, such as New York strip steak, come separately for pho tho da. The customer is meant to gradually add the toppings as they eat, because the bowl is hot enough that the broth quickly cooks the toppings, staying warm for the entire meal.

“You don’t usually see New York strip steak in pho,” Nguyen said. “But when you add that seasoning and fatness of the New York strip into the pho, it brings even more flavor to the broth.”

Pho Towda also offers bamboo charcoal banh mi, a recipe that Phan learned from a friend who studied in Japan. The bamboo charcoal powder added to the sandwich gives the baguettes a blackened look and is thought to have health benefits, Phan says.

Another specialty dish is the TD signature roll, which combines Vietnamese crunchy egg rolls (cha gio) and spring rolls (goi cuon). Though goi cuon is traditionally served with shrimp, this roll can be customized with chicken, pork or New York strip steak.

“It’s been a customer favorite over here because you get the crispy inside and the soft outside,” Nguyen recalled.

Customers also rave about the egg coffee, a Northern Vietnamese delicacy seldom served at restaurants in the U.S., according to Nguyen. Coming in salted, ube and pandan variations, the coffee is made by turning “egg yolks into a thick egg meringue layer to substitute milk,” he says.

Phan hopes to continue devising new creations for his customers, but before he can start crafting, Nguyen says the restaurant is in dire need of new chefs and staff. The current team primarily consists of high-school and college students who will soon head back to school.

“I want Chi to be able to…be creative and innovative and come up with the new stuff that he always does,” Nguyen said. “But right now he’s in the weeds, cooking and sweating and overwhelmed. He can’t come up with new, innovative food yet.”

But for Phan, who was encouraged by Nguyen to move to Northern Virginia from Georgia and hop into the restaurant business, the “fantastic” customer feedback has made every drop of sweat worthwhile, especially when customers ask to speak to the chef to give their glowing reviews of the food.

“Everyone’s saying the food is delicious, and they love the food and can’t wait to come back,” Nguyen said. “So, that gives Chi the drive and motivation to wake up every day. He comes in at 6 a.m. and doesn’t go home until midnight sometimes.”

“Me and my wife, we love to cook,” Phan added. “We just want to create more high quality food for customers.”

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