There are many options if you're hungry for a bowl of pho in Dallas. Out in the suburbs, countless restaurants offer cheap bowls of noodle-laden soup to Vietnamese immigrants and local diners in the know. Closer to downtown, more refined and Americanized bowls of pho cater to timid diners who fear offal. Lemongrass and Malai offer great bowls of hand-crafted soup, spiced heavily with cinnamon and star anise. The bowls boast beautiful, clean-tasting broths that are nearly works of art, but their lack of gelatinous tendon and thin strips of tripe limits their authenticity.
Pho after midnight, however, has been harder to come by — impossible in and around downtown Dallas. Late-night dining options for tacos and bar food abound, but if your alcohol-laden leanings leave you craving a warm bowl of bliss, you were out of luck until Dalat, a restaurant offering a creative take on Vietnamese cooking, opened this April on Fitzhugh Avenue. Now you can order bowls of pho till 2 a.m.
The large strip-mall space used to hold RedFork, the rudderless farm-to-table-meets-sports-bar concept that closed less than a year after opening. Owner Khanh Nguyen, a lawyer and a newcomer to the restaurant business, leased the space a few months later, and now only the pink composite bar remains in the reinvented dining room. The soft rose juts from a cool, plain-white interior that's softly tinted like a hazy summer sky by the reflection of a massive dark blue dragon painted on one wall and booths covered in deep-sapphire cloth. Quirky French music fills the space with jazzy pop from a lost era, pointing to the colonialism that left Vietnam with baguettes, pâté and other culinary influences.
2537 North Fitzhugh Ave., 214-827-3200, dalatdallas.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. $$
Italian Khanwich - $5.50
Tuna Khanwhich - $5.50
Dalat Rolls - $4.50
Pho - $8
Dalat Shooters - $6
Beef Vermicelli - $8
It's an awkward backdrop for pho that is sometimes delicious, other times aggravating and never the same across my several visits. Early bowls boasted soft, broken noodles that were impossible to snare with chopsticks. Subsequent bowls produced better results, but the pasta was still soft — a result of the fresh pasta Nguyen employs in his soups. The broths are shifty too.
It's easy one night to love the chicken version, loaded with big chunks of tender white meat. The broth was a rich, complex base for a soup that would cause anyone with a cold, a hangover or a loving grandmother to swoon. On another visit it was seriously salty, reminiscent of the buzzy, MSG-laden bowls served all over Dallas. Beef broth was always deep and full of character, but it suffered from the same salt inconsistency.
The menu describes wok-seared beef as a component of many dishes, but the meat, while well-seasoned, had no color or char, a consequence of an overcrowded or damp pan. The pale beef isn't as bothersome in the spring rolls paired with a peanut sauce, which offer an addictive counterpoint to the bland, lifeless versions stuffed with shrimp and crunchy vegetables at most Vietnamese restaurants. Vermicelli bowls, however, showcase the flaw. Model versions of this dish lean heavily on well-grilled meats propped up with flavorful marinades and liberated by a generous pour of sweetened fish sauce. The sauce mingles with the meat to leach complex flavors that bathe plain noodles in the essence of carnal cravings. With Dalat's pallid beef, the fish sauce has nothing to borrow, and the whole dish is bland and boring.
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The Dalat rolls wrap a fried egg roll in lettuce, other vegetables and then finally a soft rice-paper wrapper. It's a great idea for a play on textures, but the egg roll inside needs more fat and flavor, or less time in the frier. They're bland and dry for now. (Nguyen told me Tuesday he's updated the cooking process for the beef, but I was unable to return to check it out.)
Still, there are reasons to practice patience as Dalat continues to refine its unique take on Vietnamese cuisine. Dalat shooters offer odd little sake glasses filled with a smooth, orange-colored soup reminiscent of curry, and a small pork meatball or two — a fine way to kick off your meal. And while banh mi purists will take issue with missing pâté and grilled pork, the Khahnwiches, named after the owner himself, are good across the board.
An Italian sandwich makes use of salami and turkey, while the tuna version employs a salad marked with big chunks of fish lightly dressed in mayonnaise. Each boasts an aggressively applied blend of pickled carrots and daikon (something all banh mi makers should indulge with greater enthusiasm), cilantro, jalapeño slices and a light, crusty blistered roll. There's a tofu version for vegetarians and a SPAM version that, according to the menu, makes use of cold pressed ham from a can. The menu states the "meat" is not fried because that's the way Nguyen likes it, which was not the way I wanted to eat it, so I didn't order it at all.
Nguyen cites the same reason for neglecting tripe and tendon from his pho. It's not there because he didn't grow up on it and simply doesn't like it — an odd approach in a business that typically caters to its customers. But a quick scan of the dining room suggests that most of the people here probably didn't grow up eating offal either. Even if Nguyen did enjoy the slippery qualities of well-cooked tendon and the leathery texture of tripe, he's still bound by the palates, tastes and habits of his customers, just as Lemongrass and Malai are. This is not authentic Vietnamese cooking, but then it was never supposed to be.