Twenty Pho Hour (https://www.twenty-pho-hour.com/) is a new “fast casual Asian fusion” restaurant that opened in the shopping center at 11951 International Drive, down by Sea World, in a part of Orlando I rarely venture to. My wife and I recently went there because a dear friend from college was in town briefly, staying nearby. I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years, but we lived down the hall from each other in the dorm our freshman year, and had caught up on Facebook, where he is as witty and insightful and as good a dude as ever. This guy (who shares a name with an infamous TV news reporter and an infamous cartoon character) had even befriended some of my completely unrelated Facebook friends, and my wife really wanted to meet him, so we had a great lunch at the eye-catching Twenty Pho Hour.
Normally you order at the counter, but since my wife and I arrived before my friend, the patient server allowed us to sit down at a table, and she took all of our orders on a tablet when my friend joined us. Then we wandered around the space, since there is a lot to look at. Twenty Pho Hour bills itself as “America’s first 2D noodle bar,” and that is due to the striking interior design and theming of the restaurant. Everything is white surfaces with black outlines, giving it the look of two-dimensional artwork that messes with your eyes and your brain by suggesting three dimensions. Generation Xers and elder Millennials, you have probably (hopefully!) seen the classic “Take On Me” music video by Norwegian band A-ha, and that is the best way to describe the Twenty-Pho Hour decor. Plus, the song is a synth-pop bop that can transport you straight back to 1985, for better or for worse.
All the books had funny, punny titles on their spines:
The “pho booth” is a popular picture-taking spot, as one could guess:
So it’s a hip, cool, ‘Grammable place, but what about the food? Well, it’s perfectly fine, especially on that touristy side of Orlando, far from the super-authentic Asian restaurants clustered around the Mills 50 district. I’m guessing many who venture here, this could be their first taste of pho, the iconic Vietnamese beef noodle soup that lends the restaurant its name, so I decided to try a classic: pho dac biet ($13). This is the combination pho that comes with thin slices of rare eye round steak, beef brisket, chewy beef meatballs, tender tendon, and tripe (which has an odd texture that isn’t always my favorite), in addition to soft rice noodles, onions, and green onions in a complex, fragrant, slow-simmered beef broth. I’ve slurped, scarfed, sipped, and supped on pho dac biet all over Orlando, so I wanted to try this as pure and unadulterated as possible. I didn’t add any sambal oelek, sriracha, or hoisin sauce to my pho, just the fresh basil, fresh jalapeño slices, and a healthy squirt of lime. And it was perfectly fine. It didn’t capture the majestic magnificence of my other 2023 discovery, Pho Huong Lan, which I would still consider the best pho in Orlando by far. But it was refreshing, the way only pho can be, compared to having other hot soups during most of the hot, humid year in Florida. Later, I would describe it to my wife as “baby’s first pho,” but you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
My friend ordered the Trifecta ($13), a soup of beef brisket, chicken, shrimp, and udon, a thick and chewy Japanese style of noodle, in beef broth. He seemed to really enjoy his, but I did not get a picture of it. Sorry!
My wife ordered pad Thai ($13), a dish of stir-fried rice noodles with egg, peanuts, carrots, scallions, cilantro, and lime in a sweet and tangy sauce. She chose tofu as her protein, but you could also choose steak tips, brisket, chicken, shrimp, or vegetables. Note that even the plates and bowls stick to the visual theming of white with black borders, to continue the illusion and make the food pop visually even more. I’ve always felt that pad Thai is a great dish for judging a new and/or unfamiliar Thai restaurant, along with my personal go-to Thai dish, pad kee mao, sometimes known as drunken noodles. I think my wife chose wisely, because she really loved Twenty Pho Hour’s version of pad Thai. She let me try a taste, and I liked it too.
My wife also adores summer rolls at most of our favorite Vietnamese restaurants like Little Saigon and Pho 88, so she wanted to try the Twenty Pho Hour version. These were tofu summer rolls ($5) — transparent, chewy rice paper stuffed with fried tofu, mixed greens, rice vermicelli (the same noodles that were in my pho), carrots, zucchini chips, fried onion, and fried garlic. She seemed to like them a lot, but she didn’t dig on the sweet chili sauce they came with. She greatly prefers the sweet peanut sauce that most other Vietnamese restaurants serve their summer rolls with. Little did we realize, Twenty Pho Hour also serves more traditional summer rolls with that peanut sauce, but oh well, lesson learned.
My wife ordered a taro milk tea ($5) with some strawberry-flavored popping boba added (a $1 upcharge), and she really liked that. Taro bubble tea is her standard drink at any Asian tea shop or Vietnamese restaurant, but they had a few flavors to choose from. Taro always tastes like vanilla to me, but with a slightly earthy undertone that is pleasant.
And my old pal ordered an adult beverage that came with an adorable Twenty Pho Hour-branded rubber duckie, complete with the restaurant’s logo and matching color scheme. This was the spicy Tokyo mule ($12), with jalapeño-infused sake, ginger beer, simple syrup, lime juice, and fresh basil. It sounded really interesting and refreshing, and he seemed to really like it. Unfortunately, he forgot to bring the duck with him, but you can keep them.
So that’s Twenty Pho Hour. Despite the name, the restaurant is not open twenty-four hours, so that is misleading, but I understand the need for some logical leaps in service of a pun. At least it remains open until 2:00 AM Thursday through Saturday. If you find yourself down near Sea World and don’t want to schlep toward downtown Orlando for pho or other Asian food, it would be a pretty safe bet. It’s already quite popular, and I expect its popularity with increase exponentially in the weeks and months to come, so plan your visit accordingly.
Apparently it is up for some kind of Michelin dining award in 2023, to be announced later this summer. I’m assuming a Bib Gourmand award, which “recognizes great food at a great value,” or a “Recommended Restaurant.” But I’m not expecting a restaurant that has you fetch your own chopsticks and plastic utensils will get a Michelin star. Personally, I am skeptical about the entire Michelin process, and about getting restaurant recommendations from a tire company with delusions of grandeur, but here you are, getting restaurant recommendations for the past five years from an ex-librarian writing from a home office filled with action figure displays.