PHO 21 NOODLES AND GRILLS
by Andrew Chalk
No word has less place in food description than “playful”. Food is not playful. It cannot even talk. Among non-talking things the best dish has less than one percent of the playfulness of a puppy. Playful is, in fact, the word the writer uses when he can’t think of the right word to use. Long-serving chef of Dragonfly, Dan Landsberg, savily put the verbal laziness into context when he described some of his appetizers prepared for a grand charity event as “sarcastic”.
Pho 21 Noodles and Grills (sic) on West Walnut Street is the latest target in our quest to try every restaurant in the forgotten northeast quadrant of Dallas. I won’t need ‘playful’ to describe it as there are so many meaningful things one can say. Bear in mind, its main audience is the area Vietnamese community that fills it every weekend for late-night karaoke, to judge from the pictures on the Internet. We arrived early enough on a Friday to be the sole diners. There are some cities, and traditional axioms, that warn you that that is a bad sign. Dismiss it regarding Dallas ethnic food (and for most restaurants in Dallas, for that matter). An empty restaurant means that it is empty at that point in time. Nothing more.
The menu is massive. As though the family here (mum cooks, dad runs the front of house) tried to put every dish with a tie to Vietnam on it. Remarkably, it doesn’t strangle them. We went with a Shrimp Wrap Bean Curd Skin appetizer ($3.99), Táu Hū Ky, an embellishment on fried tofu, as a change from our usual spring rolls. With fish sauce or sambal as a condiment it was a heavenly melt in the mouth.
Our first main was Light Fermented Fish Broth Noodle with Shrimp, Fish and Roasted Pork ($8.49/$8.99), Nuróc Lèo Sóc Trăng, demarcated as a House Special on the menu. It contained a huge number of interesting ingredients but somehow the stock failed to have enough oomph to bring them together. Leftovers the next day made more impression, presumably after a night’s emulsification of ingredients.
The highlight was our other entée choice, Vietnamese Crab Thick Noodle Soup ($8.99), Bánh Canh Cua. The name does not do justice to the panoply of flavors and textures in this awesome creation. Thick seafood stock with chunks of shredded crab meat, quail eggs bobbing to the surface periodically from the murky depths below, chunky pork sausage cut on the bias to create mouth filling slices. On top, a drizzling of diced scallions, cilantro, and pork bits (essentially Vietnamese bacon) that projected a crisp dimension to the dish. I have not found this soup anywhere else in town yet and it alone is a reason to return to Pho 21.
Like all the places we have visited thus far, Pho 21 is BYOB, so find a crisp Italian or Alsatian white, or a Provence rosé and take it along. Where the glass matters, take your own. Our bill for two was less than $24 plus tip. Helpings are large so doggie bags were de rigueur.
Summary: Inexpensive, authentic, large menu with some unusual items. Karaoke if you want it later in the evening.
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