Pho is a relatively simple dish. The soup consists of rice noodles, broth, herbs, and meat. Pho began as a street food in Vietnam during the early 20th century, according to Santa Clara University.
Local Restaurateur Alonso Roche is serving the dish as a part of Bethesda restaurant TapaBar’s transformation into a place to tinker with new culinary concepts – what he is calling a “pop-up food lab.”
“We love Pho. We were trying to do something simple that was easy to put in place quickly,” Roche said. “My brother and I realized we were eating pho once or twice a week at least, and that there’s no pho around here.”
The bowl of soup comes out steaming hot. The noodles, broth, meat, and herbs are served in one bowl, while another bowl holds the garnishes of bean sprouts, jalapenos, and basil. The soft rice noodles paired with crunchy bean sprouts make for a nice mix of textures in a single slurp.
“We’re doing it traditionally. I’m working on a couple of little things like spring rolls and summer rolls. I think pho is one of those traditional things where you want to keep it the same way it was,” said Roche.
Roche used to serve pho during lunch service at TapaBar, while dinner service featured a traditional menu of Spanish tapas. Roche shut down the Tapas menu on New Year’s, before starting the pho pop-up last Tuesday. TapaBar struggled with getting customers in the door, which Roche said was partially due to people viewing the restaurant as a solely a place for special occasions. Roche said that his lunchtime pho saw more success than the tapa based dinner service.
“We were doing well on the weekends, but it’s hard to get people out here Monday through Thursday. It’s hard to run a restaurant on two days a week,” said Roche on the closing of TapaBar.
Customers will be able to choose from three kinds of pho during the winter months, beef, chicken, and vegetable. Roche said the vegetable pho bears a robust Japanese influence featuring mushrooms in a miso broth.
After the winter months, Roche said that the pop-up would move away from pho in favor of experimenting with new concepts. Unlike DC pop-up space EatsPlace, Roche will not feature a rotating cast of chefs or an ever-changing menu. Instead, Roche will be testing and tweaking food that he plans to use in a new restaurant that will take over the TapaBar space.
“It’s tough to understand the concept of a changing menu. The restaurant business is about continuity you have to make it something that people will come back to for the same thing,” said Roche.
His goal is to create a place specializing in low priced, family-friendly fare.
“Bethesda is about families,” said Roche. “We need to have good quality food at a good price so people can come often.”
Roche worked at Michelin starred restaurant Zaranda in Spain under chef Fernando Pérez Arellano. Roche also co-owns Bold Bite and 202 Doughnuts and Coffee with his brother Alvaro. 202 Doughnuts shares a building and kitchen with TapaBar.
In January the Roche brothers will be opening two new restaurants in Bethesda, right next to TapaBar, TacoArepa, and Sirena Beer Garden. TacoArepa will be using arepas, and tacos as vessels for the food Roche ate while growing up in the Caribbean. A particular emphasis will put on food influenced by his native Venezuela, such as shredded beef.
Sirena Beer Garden will be right next to TacoArepa and have its food sourced from the restaurant. There will be some local drinks but the focus according to Roche will be on local beers.
“There’s no beer garden out here. It would be a good thing to do if we get the right beers and the right people,” said Roche.