Featured photo: What Da Pho’s owners Anna and Xia Lieu, with their son Xander. (photo by Sudarshan Krishnamurthy)
The faint gleam of Vietnamese silk lanterns, a warm smile and the welcoming greeting of “Sit wherever you’d like!” welcomes guests as they walk through the doors.
“I started waiting tables when I was 15 or 16,” says Xia Lieu, the owner of What Da Pho, who personally greets customers as they walk in.
What Da Pho is one of very few restaurants that serves pho in Winston-Salem, and is the only exclusively Vietnamese restaurant in town. With a really small Vietnamese community and little in terms of Vietnamese culture in the city, Lieu says that the restaurant is frequented by folks in Winston who are not Vietnamese or even Asian.
Lieu grew up working in his parents’ restaurant in Pittsburgh and enjoyed it enough to continue in the restaurant business ever since. With his family, he has previously owned and operated several restaurants, including Xia Asian Fusion Cuisine and Thai Harmony in Winston-Salem, and a dedicated Pho restaurant in Greenville, NC, before he moved back to Winston-Salem to start ‘What Da Pho’ just after Christmas in 2022. Thai Harmony is now under different ownership.
The past year that they’ve been open, their priority has been to keep the menu simple and do a few dishes really well, Lieu says.
“We sell a lot of pho, and that’s why it’s always fresh too,” he says.
According to Lieu, “the broth and the meat are the key” to a good pho; you have to keep them fresh. Selling a lot of it means they make it fresh everyday.
Their rare-steak pho is considered by many a classic, and regulars keep coming back for the hearty broth. Lieu says that some of the things on the menu can be an acquired taste, but that it’s surprised him how many people have tried and loved them. The ‘combination pho,’ that includes steak, tendons, tripe and other beef cuts, has been a pretty popular item despite the fact that many diners have never previously experienced eating tripe, the stomach of the cow.
“A lot of people are open minded,” he says, appreciating how the restaurant has been welcomed by the Winston-Salem community.
Another pleasant reminder that this restaurant is truly family-centered is the delightful presence of Xander. Xander is Lieu’s 10-year-old son. While he’s sometimes sitting at a table in the center of the restaurant painting on canvas or playing games on his iPad, he often clears tables and rings customers up, unprompted, after their meals.
Xander says that he may want to continue in the family restaurant business, but his eyes really light up when he gets to talk about his newfound hobby of photography. He’d like to take pictures of muscle cars someday.
Occasionally, customers will also be greeted by Anna, Lieu’s wife and the mastermind in the kitchen.
She walks around the restaurant, asking customers what they think of the food with a comforting — yet captivating — smile. Despite working in the kitchen for a majority of the business hours, her vibrant personality lights up the dining room when she’s able to take time in the front of the house. When she is able to take a break from the kitchen, she often is seen making a beeline to tables of diners to chat with them about the food, and is quick to recommend new items like the bubble teas that they are adding within a few weeks, in anticipation of the summer.
As the Lieu family starts their second year of What Da Pho together, they exude excitement in introducing new items to the menu. In addition to pho, vermicelli bowls, lo mein, and a variety of banh mi sandwiches, a bubble tea menu with eight different flavors will soon allow visitors to expand their palates. Xander recommends the mango boba, his favorite.
And as prices of ingredients continue to climb, Lieu says they’re working to keep their menu affordable for their customers.
“The prices went up over the holidays, but I’m not going to bump the prices on the menu,” he says.“I’m not going to do that to the customers.”
It’s all part of making sure everyone feels welcome when they walk through their doors.
“I’d rather see a customer eat [here] two times a week, than see them [eat here] once every two weeks,” Xia says.
Visit What Da Pho at 102 W 3rd St STE 5 in Winston-Salem or learn more at whatdaphonc.net.
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