There is no music in Pho New Bay, but there is a high-definition television set anchored in one corner. It is tuned to the Discovery Channel. Right now on the screen is Bear Grylls, British Special Forces hunk-turned-adventurer-survivalist star of Discovery's Man vs. Wild (among his favorite reads is Messy Spirituality; among his favorite bands, The Monkees). At 23, Bear was the youngest Brit ever to summit Everest.
Bear is somewhere cold. He has just plunged his hands into frigid waters and plucked out a silvery fish. It writhes and squirms. Its tail shimmies. Its dorsal fin is viciously erect. Bear takes a bite out of its back, ripping out a frayed hunk of snow white flesh. The fish goes limp. Bear must have severed its spine with his incisors. Blood appears around the wound, and when Bear goes in for another bite, the red spreads over his lips like lipstick sloppily smeared over the mouth of a 4-year-old flopping around in her mother's pumps.
Bear talks at the camera as he chews, and other than this rapid whispery chatter, Pho New Bay is quiet. Ours is the only occupied table, save for the one where the young woman sits patiently waiting for her to-go order to be filled. She giggles and "eeews" at Bear. Bear just chews and smacks and murmurs. Then the brown paper bag arrives at the cash register with receipts stapled to the bag flaps. She approaches and pays. A Chihuahua pops its head out from the zippered slit in her red and white purse.
Pho New Bay
Vietnamese egg roll $2.25
Shrimp spring roll $2.95
Salted prawns $11.99
Fried shrimp $4.50
Beef balls noodle soup $5.25
Combo pho $5.25
Shrimp and pork rice noodle soup $6.95
Stir fried lemongrass beef $6.95
Beef broccoli stir fry $6.99
Iced espresso $2.50
Pho New Bay has a spiral-bound plastic-coated menu, a lush gallery of color food portraits cross-referenced with numbers and descriptions like an auction catalog. Flip to Pho New Bay's specialties. There's the fried whole fish as big as Bear's in a hot tomato sauce. There's the Pho New Bay special lobster, 1 pound, its red body parts distinct in the lush menu portrait. Neither of these specialties is available. The kitchen doesn't stock them. Little customer interest, our server says. I wonder if the Discovery Channel has something to do with this.
Pho New Bay has shrimp spring rolls, bumpy rice paper bundles as thick as backpack sleeping bags, red capillaries weaving over the lengthwise-sliced white shrimp bodies like fraying cobwebbing, all visible through the milky rice paper. Crisp and fresh, the rolls are stuffed with rice noodles, shredded carrot and mint. A dark peanut slurry with chunks of peanut and a slight zest of citrus or maybe vinegar rests in a ramekin nearby for dipping.
Egg rolls, thin crisp golden tubes—deliciously greaseless—are filled with a pulp of ground pork, carrot and mushroom.
There are salted prawns, surprisingly small crustacean curls dredged in flour, deep-fried and then fried again in a wok with onions and spices before they're spread on a platter bedded with supple romaine cups framed with faded, tasteless tomato slices (cleaved into halves), cucumber and pickled jicama.
This bedding repeats itself. You find it with the beef and broccoli, a spread of yellowing, hard and bitter florets with sliced beef marinated in dark, thick hoisin-like sauce. The beef is oddly spongy and gelatinous, bouncing the jaw as if the meat were embedded with thousands of tiny springs. It repeats with the fried shrimp, popcorn-sized and distinct from the salted prawns, and so on.
Salted prawns are inconsistent: gummy and sticky in one rendition, the seasonings and crust molting away, suggesting they may have been pre-prepped and nuked. They're crisp and brilliantly seasoned in another version. The salty heat of these prawns is broadly framed with spices and a slight musky tang that hints at the presence of fish sauce. This is the way you wish calamari fritti—the appetizer acne of Dallas menus—would be formulated.
Pho New Bay is in a North Dallas strip mall. Its walls are washed in muted greens and yellows. Its banquettes are plump and spacious around tables stocked with napkins and plastic chopsticks in paper sleeves and salt and pepper shakers next to squeeze bottles of pepper sauces. On the walls hang lush travel photos and landscape paintings that look like fresh acquisitions from a starving artists' bazaar at a Holiday Inn ballroom. Pho New Bay takes only Visa and MasterCard. Pho New Bay serves no alcohol, but you can bring your own. Pho New Bay has a corkscrew.
Iced lemonade, freshly squeezed, is crisp and refreshing if you can get them to tone down the sweeteners. The iced espresso with condensed milk as thick as yogurt must be stirred to mix the bottom layer of white with the top layer of tarry coffee that slowly drips into a glass pot from a strainer above. Drink it from a tall glass filled with ice. It grips the palate like dark chocolate.
But what you come for is pho, the enigmatic century-old Vietnamese national soup often served for breakfast. Pho is heavy with Chinese influences with roots sunk subtly in French consommés, recalling a time when French colonial culture all but dominated this sliver of a country with a mountainous strand that runs through the middle like a scaled spine.
The pho unspools in a dozen or so variations: rare steak, well-done flank and tripe (stomach lining from cattle), rare steak and tendon, brisket, chicken, rice noodles without any meats, along with other mixed and matched variants.
Beef balls are spongy spheres, sometimes halved, with air pockets locked in the fiber. They float amongst the rice noodle strands that sometimes knot but are mostly separate, slithering over one another's lengths. There is the requisite plate of bean sprouts, basil and angry seeded jalapeño slices—all not at their freshest—to stir into the froth. There are crudely cleaved pieces of lime to be squeezed in to embolden the flavors further. The broth exhales a heady steam perfumed with star anise that seduces like stroking fingertips. Despite the strength of the aromas, the broth is surprisingly tame, allowing the flavors of the freshly blanched greens to say their piece in relative quiet.
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Overcooked flaccid rice noodles begin to knot into a gluey tumor in the special combo of steak, well-done flank, tendon and tripe. The tripe is like a plasticized honeycomb. It snaps and crunches. The steak is chewy, its richness boiled away.
Orange-rimmed slices of dry pork roil with shrimp overcooked into twine fibers in the shrimp and pork rice noodle soup, a rare beefless pho. Yet the noodles are perfectly cooked. This pho can be as inconsistent as the salted prawns.
It's near impossible to put a dent in a regular-sized bowl of Pho New Bay pho. The server brings plastic containers and fills them at your table, spilling broth that pools in an expanding puddle that saturates everything in its pho floodplain. On the high-def, Discovery is running Storm Chasers, a show in which meteorological daredevils hunt twisters in tornado alley. They find two during a cloud chase from Amarillo to Kansas. They do this in a bizarre thing called a Tornado Intercept Vehicle. The TIV has bullet-proof windows, an observation turret and wide fender flares. It looks like an up-armored rug shampooer. Pre-tornado rains hit. The meteorologists hunker down. The TIV's wipers sway over its bullet-proof windows. Our server mops up pho with paper napkins. It'll take a big storm to right this menu.
17479 Preston Road, 972-447-0103.Open 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday,9:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $-$$