BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Amid the flurry of emergency declarations, event cancellations and health department reports on the COVID-19 pandemic, Andy Huynh is hustling to get a much more normal message out to the public: His new pho restaurant in Blountville is reopening for pickup.
Pho 126 plans to open for pickup-only orders Friday, in line with the current pandemic restrictions for restaurants. The venue originally launched Feb. 16 with both dine-in and pickup services under the name What the Pho! But after several days, a plumbing issue and some management challenges forced its closing.
Huynh said that by the time he and his restaurant partner, Oanh Thi-Kim Nguyen, resolved those issues, they found themselves facing a global pandemic that drastically affected restaurants. But Huynh said he and Nguyen are determined to reopen and bring a new kind of cuisine to the region.
“We have every kind of thing in this area, every different food but Vietnamese,” Huynh said, sitting at a booth in the restaurant’s empty dining area Tuesday. Sounds of running water and clanging dishes escaped from the kitchen, where Nguyen and another employee bustled around making preparations.
Huynh, 43, also owns the Andy’s Market gas stations in Bristol, Virginia and Abingdon. He said he’s wanted to open a pho restaurant for 10 years.
Pho is a popular Vietnamese meal that usually consists of beef broth, slices of beef or chicken, rice noodles, herbs and spices. Its ingredients aren’t set in stone, though: Huynh said that as long as the broth base is tasty, you can’t really go wrong with the meats, noodles and herbs you add. He said the restaurant will have chicken and vegetable broth options as well as the beef broth.
Huynh compared pho to chicken noodle soup but said he thinks the Vietnamese soup has “better flavor.”
“It’s a really simple but famous dish,” Huynh said. “It can be breakfast. It can be lunch.”
And, he said, that soup and the other dishes that Pho 126 will serve are more wholesome than what you might expect from takeout.
“Original Vietnamese food [isn’t cooked] with much grease,” Huynh said. “We use grease to keep the food from sticking to the pan, not for more than that. It’s really healthy.”
Bringing pho to Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia has been a much bumpier process than he expected, he added. For those few days it was open in February, he said, the restaurant brought in good business.
“We got welcomed really well [by the community],” he said. “We thought everything should be going really smooth.”
But the venue’s building hadn’t been used in a while, and a water pipe inside quickly backed up. The restaurant had to abruptly close to fix the pipe and also iron out some management difficulties Huynh said he hadn’t anticipated.
“Honestly, it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We tried to get everything straightened out, and we [are] going to try to make things better and more reliable for the public. Everything is working fine now.”
Everything Huynh and his restaurant partner Nguyen can control, that is. The world around them is a different matter.
Because of the growing pandemic and the meeting restrictions restaurants and other public spaces now face, Huynh said that Pho 126 will only prepare orders for pickup at the building. And while he said he originally envisioned having three or four waiters, the pickup-only model has room for just one or two, along with the cook.
But Huynh also said that now is as good a time as ever to experience some good Vietnamese cooking — especially when folks tire of cooking at home, he said.
“You can eat all the time at home but still get bored,” he said. “Pho will help with this.”
Huynh said that pho is also a good comfort food if you’re weathering an illness, whether it’s COVID-19 or just a common cold.
“When you don’t feel good, don’t feel like eating a hamburger or dry food, pho is good,” he said. “It’s not a lot of heavy stuff in your stomach. And if you want to eat it spicy, that will open up your sinuses. When I got the flu, it helped me.”
Asked what his own favorite pho combo is, Huynh said he likes to use several different cuts of beef, fresh-squeezed lemon and lime, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, green onions and black pepper.
“Those [ingredients] are what make the flavor, the texture, the smell very good,” he said.
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