This week I had the rare pleasure of spending time with my mom. She is in town, well, technically in the country, for the next few weeks and I have been waiting anxiously for her arrival.
One of my favorite pastimes is embarking on adventures of the food variety with my mom. Whether it's getting lost in the streets of Tsimshatshui in Hong Kong or exploring new restaurants on Bellaire in Houston, she is the best companion for at random dining.
My mother did not have much of a childhood, being the oldest and therefore the caretaker of ten brothers and sisters. As soon as she finished years of this, she married and had children of her own.
And whenever she gets the chance to frolic with her equally gluttonous eldest child, she takes full advantage of it.
A destination I had been putting on hold in anticipation of my mother's return is Garland. The first reason being that I have received several comments and suggestions from readers regarding Garland restaurants since the beginning of this column and I wanted to save the "best" for when my mother could provide her unique perspective. Secondly, since as long as I can remember, my mother always loved commuting to Garland for her Vietnamese fix.
Mind you, we lived almost an hour away in Fort Worth, near the Vietnamese communities of Haltom City and Arlington, but she would always insist that she could only find certain food items or ingredients in Garland.
While I enjoyed my family's weekly voyages to heavily Chinese influenced Richardson, it always disappointed my mother that I didn't feel the same enthusiasm for Richardson's Vietnamese neighboring suburb. After fetching her from the TRE station, we headed east.
While I have eaten in Garland a few times in my life, it has not been recent. I have to be honest: Garland is not cute. It is downright depressing. To be fair, Haltom City is not known for its glamor, either. As we pulled up to our intended restaurant, we were disappointed to see that Lá Me was closed for the day, a Wednesday.
Why are Vietnamese restaurants always closed on the most bizarrely random days, like Tuesdays and Wednesdays?
Great. I would not be trying what some say is the best Bo Bia in the Dallas area. No matter--we searched the shopping center for a substitute.
We didn't have to strain our eyes very hard because across the parking lot sat a graffiti and flag festooned Bistro B. Walking around and examining the restaurant's exterior was perplexing. What is this place exactly? What kind of food do they serve? And what is up with all the blob-like window decorations?!?
Walking inside was equally confusing. The restaurant's tacky exterior misrepresented the sleekness and cleanliness of the dining room. Packaged food items, desserts, and drinks covered the cashier's counter, but the restaurant is clearly a sit down eatery. Plasma screen TVs adorn the walls, while waiters and waitresses dressed in unfortunate uniforms buzz from table to table. It struck me as a mishmash of contemporary restaurants popular in Asia, though with less precision.
Sitting down at our booth, we opened up our menus to be a tad shocked at the high prices. $4 for three spring rolls? And here I thought driving out to the ethnic neighborhoods of the burbs would result in competitive pricing.
My mother reminded me that we had visited Bistro B a few months ago, but in Grand Prairie. I had not recognized the Garland outpost as the two restaurants differ greatly in style.
We decide to try only a few dishes in order to save room for a real meal at the Cantonese restaurant next door. When our appetizer of Nem Nÿÿng Cÿÿn and Chÿo Tôm Cÿÿn arrived, we quickly see that the spring rolls' price is justified by their enormous size. Also catching our attention was the frighteningly scarlet peanut sauce accompanying the rolls.
The sauce is an atomic red, and not because of chilis. Most likely the restaurant buffered the sauce with packaged spices, which not only creates an unholy color, but also demolishes much of the peanut flavor. The Nem Nÿÿng Cÿÿn could probably use a bit more greens and herbs, but I enjoyed it. The Chÿo Tôm Cÿÿn, or grilled shrimp paste spring rolls, was a completely different story.
If we thought the peanut sauce bore an unappealing color, the Crayola carnation pink hue of the Chÿo Tôm, or shrimp, was downright unnatural. The kitchen had apparently decided that in order to make the minced meat look more shrimp-like, they would add red food coloring--at least that's the appearance it gave.
For the second course, we decide to split a bowl of pho. We opt for a basic Pho Tai Chin, pho with eye round beef and brisket, and when the massive bowl arrived, we both agreed that maybe a trip to the Cantonese restaurant would not be necessary after all.
Their pho is sweet, something my mom vocalized after her first few bites. But sweet pho is something I've come to sadly expect in the modern day Vietnamese restaurant. To be fair, however, Bistro B's version is the least sugary of all the phos I've had recently--something for which I was thankful. My mom is harder to please these days. She blurts that it doesn't taste or smell like pho, and that she doesn't understand why it's so difficult for Vietnamese restaurants to master this particular dish. I respond that Bistro B does boast an extensive menu, and maybe that hurts the restaurant's chances at perfecting one dish. After thoughtfully considering this, she says I might be on to something.
Next, Bánh Xèo, the crispy fried, pork and shrimp filled Vietnamese crepe came out to our table and--consistent with the Bistro B trend--it is a very generous portion. After assembling my wrap out of lettuce, cucumber, and herbs, I cut into the Bánh Xèo...or more accurately speaking, I attempted to cut into it.
The crepe is dense and hard, not thin and crispy as it should be, soaking up far more grease than a thinner crepe would allow. The inside is mainly beansprouts, almost lacking meat and completely lacking mung bean, an important flavor element in Bánh Xèo. The dipping sauce for the dish is fish sauce, and Bistro B's resembles sugar water.
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While I appreciate Bistro B's attempt at being a clean and modern Vietnamese restaurant, right down to the portion sizes, I am still searching for a Vietnamese restaurant that doesn't compromise flavors. Our meal of three shared courses totals to around $18.00, which is not unreasonable because we knew how to order. Other items on the menu are far pricier. I would probably revisit Bistro B to try their other offerings, but I am not highly optimistic that there would be a much different outcome.
In the meantime, my mother and I have more exploring to do.
9780 Walnut Street, Garland