Stranded at the Altar: Zander's House Teases With a Menu We Can't Taste
Plano has its share of Asian restaurants, but seeing as how I live in between the two closer options of Richardson and Arlington, I never feel the need to travel past Belt Line Road. Luckily, a shopping expedition to Allen made sure I'd have to drive through our northern neighbor, and I wanted to take advantage. A quick Yelp search in the car (sorry, Oprah), brought up an intriguing name. Zander's House isn't the typical Vietnamese restaurant name, and it could result in either extreme, from pleasant surprise to gross disappointment. Also, its simple-to-spot location directly off of Central Expressway cemented my decision. JS Chen Dim Sum would have to wait until my digestive system was ready to gorge again, and Pho Mac would have to wait until I stopped sweating in weird places.
As we pulled up to Zander's, the boyfriend, being a former Plano resident, recognized the restaurant from his childhood days, "This used to be August Moon. Man, this is rundown. How did you find this place?" Yeah, I know. I need to stop taking him on these things. Walking into the restaurant didn't make matters better. My best attempt at a description: Imagine what Norma Desmond's favorite Chinese restaurant would look like. The grand space resembles a ghost house, an old Chinese banquet hall whose glory days still linger like spirits. The vaulted high ceilings and spread-out tables created a feel a of large storage unit opposed to restaurant. The center of the restaurant is occupied by a stage and dance floor for weddings. Half of the dining room was a mess of stacked chairs on top of tables, while the other half was open to customers. There were five tables occupied with families and older couples when we walked in, but the size of the place made the number of people seem small.
A casually dressed woman spotted us from what seemed a mile away and came to seat us at a table by the dance floor. The disjointed feeling continued on throughout the meal, starting with the menu. Given the setting, the menu was more ambitious than I expected. Appetizer options include grilled calamari, and Voss bottled water is offered as a beverage. However, as ambitious as it is, much like the restaurant itself, the menu is disorganized and confusing. Pho is mixed in with the "meats" category, while the dinner menu boasts of a "lunch menu" on the front page. Why tell me there's a lunch menu, when I can't have it? The following conversation between the waitress and I is a translated-to-English illustration of how confusing the menu can be.
Me: "I would like the banh cuon, please." Waitress: "OK, but you should know it's not like the banh cuon you are expecting." Me: "Um, OK." Waitress: "This isn't the kind of banh cuon that is rolled up with pork and mushroom filling. There are no bean sprouts or steamed sausages or anything like that. This is just shrimp inside of rice flour cakes with mint on top. Do you still want it?" Me: "I guess?"
The boyfriend decided to keep it safe by ordering a vermicelli with grilled pork and egg rolls, aka bun thit nuong cha gio, which is just about the safest thing one can order at this point. We decided to leave it at that.
As we waited for our food, I continued taking in the restaurant. Waiters were dressed in kung-fu style uniforms, while the waitresses wore jeans and T-shirts. While I sat contemplating these annoying, yet trivial, details, a family of eight walked into the restaurant and sat down next to us at a banquet style table. They must have been regulars, or possibly they ordered ahead, because even before we got our food, they were already on their way to a feast. From the looks of their meal, I wanted to ditch the boyfriend and join the family of eight. I must have been on to something, because the boyfriend had the same look in his eyes -- betrayal and lust. The waiters marched one captivating dish after another out of the kitchen and onto the family's table. We could only sit and pretend not to stare as they devoured Vietnamese shrimp salad and various fried meats while the heavenly smells wafted over to our puny little table.
At last, our food arrived, but I was more concerned with asking the waiter if we could order what our neighbors next to us had ordered. He replied that the items they were eating were not on the regular menu and were available only on the wedding menu or for big parties. That's when it became apparent to us how Zander's has stayed in business for the past four years: weddings. The tables and chairs in storage mode and the waiters' uniforms should have given it away, but I'm dense, especially when I'm hungry.
After having coveted our fellow diners' meals, our items seemed a bit lusterless. Surprisingly, not in the looks department, but rather, we were disappointed with the portions. Aesthetically speaking, our dishes were much more pleasing that I expected. My banh cuon was exactly as the waitress had described it, but much prettier than she had let on. The simplicity of the plating allowed the green of the mint and the pink of the shrimp to pop. I recognized the banh cuon as being of the mid-Vietnam region variety. The waiter confirmed this, saying that their banh cuon is consistent with that of Nha Trang, a coastal city in central Vietnam. The rice cake is thicker than that of the southern Vietnamese banh cuon crepes, but the consistency is pleasantly chewy, like tapioca. If you're not a fan of Vietnamese fish sauce, you might want to pass on this dish. Since the flavors of the actual banh cuon are so subtle, the main flavoring agent is a dousing of fish sauce.
The boyfriend's bowl of noodles was a more disappointing story. For a $7, the meat was scarce and the egg roll was pathetically small. The meat, however, was grilled and not fried, which always is good, but not always adhered to, when it comes to bun thit nuong (translation: grilled pork noodle). The biggest problem I had with the dish is the size of noodle they use. This is a pet peeve of mine. Bun comes in two sizes, thin like bean thread and thick like angel-hair pasta. Zander's uses thick bun for their bun thit nuong, which is no-no for me. In a dry noodle dish, such as the bun thit nuong, the thinner noodle is more ideal for soaking up the only flavor source, which is fish sauce. A thicker noodle causes all the fish sauce to sink to the bottom of the bowl, resulting in a bland dish.
As I write this blog, my brain still is processing my experience at Zander's House. What I did discover, however, is that Zander is the name of the owner's young child. What I'd like to find out is if they could possibly sneak me in the next time there's a wedding being held there. It would be nice to see the restaurant magically come alive like an old Hollywood set buzzing with revelry. Who am I kidding? I want some of those deep-fried crab somethings.
Zander's House 2300 N. Central Expressway Plano 972-943-9199
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