Miss Chi's Pho and the Battle for Noodle Supremacy
Who needs noodles when you have tasty tendon?
While your fellow soup fiends get lost in an expanding tangle of ramen noodles, you'd do well to take notice of the smaller yet no less delicious resurgence of pho. Ramen has achieved cult status here and everywhere, as young chefs and young diners, many just learning to slurp, embrace the timeless culinary art form. Pho's popularity has been more muted, which is strange, because the steaming bowls have been served in countless restaurants throughout Dallas and its suburbs for decades.
Perhaps it's because, for the most part, Vietnamese restaurants take shortcuts with their broth. Tradition calls for meaty beef bones and even more meat to be simmered low and really slow, often overnight, so the broth is ready for breakfast or lunch the next day. Non-traditional recipes call for a measure of soup base, a powdered substance often loaded with MSG, which creates broth with hot water and two spins of a spoon. It smells great, but the synthetic stock is too salty, and if you've walked out of a restaurant with that buzzy feeling in your head, pho made the wrong impression. Thankfully, just as ramen is experiencing a renaissance, a number of restaurants are returning to hand-crafted bowls of pho.
Among those riding the steaming wave is Miss Chi, which opened in Preston Center in November. The owners of Wicked Po' Boys learned that two New Orleans-themed sandwich shops are one too many, so they closed down their second and recast the space as a modern Vietnamese restaurant. Miss Chi the restaurant is named for Miss Lan Chi Le the dentist-turned-restaurateur, who runs the business with her husband, Joey. (The couple also has a ramen shop, Tanoshii Ramen + Bar, that opened last year in Deep Ellum.)
For the best experience, grab a seat at the bar and order the beef combination. After the ticket rattles away, you can peer into the kitchen as a cook ladles a few measures of broth into a pan from a massive stockpot, sets it on the stove and cranks up the burner. The next few moments are a blur of various meats and tangled noodles, and soon your bowl arrives, steaming and aromatic, garnished with a quiet turn from the pepper mill. When it does, lean in so close your nose almost connects with the surface of the broth. Inhale until your lungs are full, and let the steam warm your face. You are soothed.
Stay focused; there's work to do. Use the soup spoon that looks like a tiny ladle and take a cautious sip. Warmth is a big issue with pho-natics, and while you won't lose the skin on your tongue, tepid soup is not a problem here. Consistency, on the other hand, can be an issue. The broth is sometimes comforting, other times sinisterly salty.
But there is hoisin sauce, which adds sweetness, spice and earthy flavors. It also can counteract salinity if you end up with a briny bowl. There is Sriracha, which adds heat — a prick at first, and all the way up to a roaring burn if you decide to take it there. The limes on the garnish plate are less finicky, with a brightening effect that's almost impossible to overdo. Basil adds aroma, and mung bean sprouts add crunch, though only if you add a few at a time — they wilt quickly in hot broth.
Hidden in the cloudy depths you'll find thinly sliced beef that was raw until it met the hot, steamy broth. You'll find angular meatballs that bounce when they slip from your chopsticks and brisket so tender it almost falls apart. You'll also find the occasional slice of clear tendon that may frighten you if you're not used to such things. Long, slow cooking times coax tough and snappy tissue into a silky, gelatinous texture that will grow on you.
While you assault your shirt with tiny droplets of whiplashed broth from springy noodles, pace yourself by looking around. Miss Chi's dining room bears little resemblance to typical Vietnamese restaurants. The walls and ceilings are a white canvas from which chairs and light fixtures jump out in bright yellows and blues. It almost has a beach vibe, complete with chalkboard menus. Paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling mark the recent Lunar New Year, but they wouldn't look out of place if they stayed year round. The red really pops.
Enough pacing. Back to that broth, and its potential sidecars. Alongside your soup you'll want to find the snappy wontons stuffed with cream cheese and "crabmeat." The crispy parcels are filled with the same imitation crab meat employed by many Asian restaurants, but they're less greasy and more flavorful than the other versions you're used to. The egg rolls are thin cigars and meatier than usual, stuffed with blended pork and shrimp that have a springy bite.
The baby clams are less familiar, minced and sautéed with fragrant Vietnamese coriander. The mixture is served in a bowl surrounded with shrimp crackers, which are a lot like pork cracklings, only made with shellfish. They do crackle, though, when you spoon some of the clam mixture into each, quietly popping like breakfast cereal until you silence them with your teeth. Any of these snacks make great friends with cold beer and make the nachos at your local bar look extra soggy and sullen.
You could spend time with the rest of the menu, but you'd miss the strongest dishes. Spring rolls and vermicelli plates play mix and match with similar ingredients that are sometimes appealing and others quite sad. The grilled pork, for example, is delicious when it's served fresh from the grill, alive and sizzling, but when it arrives reheated it's lifeless and dry. Lemon grass chicken often tastes like it was cooked ages ago, too, though the shrimp almost always arrive with some life. You could order shaking beef and wish it had some more personality, or the spicy beef soup that betrays its rusty red color, but you're really best off with a hot bowl of pho and some bar snacks.
Miss Chi will leave certain fans of Vietnamese cooking looking for bigger, bolder flavors and a bit more grit, but the restaurant is also pushing others up against their comfort boundaries as evidenced by a few picking tendon from their bowls of pho. With any luck it will push hard enough to break a few of them through the other side, and into a better understanding and appreciation of a cuisine that embraces pungent aromas, bold flavors and textures that don't translate directly to an American understanding of delicious.
Ramen is doing a little of that right now. Pho is right behind. And, at least for now, you won't have to wait in a line to get on board.
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