With Texas continuing its onslaught of dysfunctional weather (today excluded), I interpreted last weekend's abrupt cold weather as a sign for me to finally go and review Pho Bang, the popular pho restaurant in Garland. Along for the food ride was my friend Kelly, a Vietnamese cuisine neophyte. Once we arrived at our destination, however, the outside door of the restaurant was locked and on it hung a sign that read, "Closed for repairs." I perceived this unforeseen event as another sign: a sign for me, after three failed attempts, to drive down the street and pay a visit to La Me.
I want so much to like La Me. The Vietnamese café-style restaurant sits in an unimpressive strip mall in the Garland/Richardson area, yet it retains a certain charm. It offers a quaint outdoor patio seating area. It projects a coziness that is reinforced by a sweet and affable staff. It thrives despite being situated a stone's throw away from the larger and glossier Bistro B. Yet La Me's proximity to its overachieving neighbor regrettably may be the contributing factor for many of its own shortcomings.
La Me, like many other Vietnamese restaurants, is closed for business on an arbitrary weekday. In La Me's case, it's Wednesdays. For some bizarre reason, and like a bad blonde-moment movie starring pre-Oscar Reese Witherspoon, I always develop a craving and drive to La Me on, you guessed it, Wednesdays. Fortunately, for us, it was a Saturday, and the restaurant was not only open for business, but still quite lively for 2 p.m.
Once seated at our table, Kelly remarked on how cute and clean the restaurant is. After taking a quick glance through the massive menu, she timidly suggested that maybe I should assume the ordering duties. I didn't blame her. Even for a person like me who reads restaurant menus as a recreational hobby, La Me's book of offerings is intimidating. I had not been expecting such an extensive menu for such a small restaurant, and I had to wonder if nearby Bistro B's Cheesecake Factory-like menu had anything to do with La Me's decision to offer so many items. As I frantically perused the book, Kelly noted how the page I was on listed menu items into the 100s.
Feeling a bit guilty after the waiter returned a third time to take our order, I decided just to order my standard go-to dishes. On the heels of a substandard Vietnamese experience the week before, I decided to order the same dishes at La Me, in a compare and contrast experiment. Remembering that my friend, Susie, had asked me to try out the restaurant's Bo Bia, I added an appetizer order of the Chinese sausage spring rolls. When trying out a new Vietnamese restaurant, I tend to order the more generically popular dishes, such as bun thit nuong, pho, com suon, and spring rolls. I figure if a restaurant cannot cook these dishes correctly, there is no point trying anything else. It also assists me in unscrambling what a restaurant's strengths and weaknesses may be. For instance, at La Me, I decided to order a Pho Dac Biet, Bo Bia, and a Com Suon Bi Cha. Ordering a pho tells me if La Me takes short cuts not just in their pho broth, but in all their noodle soup broths. It also tells me if they understand how to master, arguably, the most popular dish served in Vietnamese restaurants.
Ordering Bo Bia, or any type of spring roll, reveals if a restaurant is stingy. Spring rolls have an insane profit margin. When I order a Com Suon, or Grilled Pork Chop over rice, I'm looking at everything from grill marks, to seasoning, to tenderness of the pork, to portion size. In other words, I want to know if a restaurant actually understands how to cook meat.
First out is the Bo Bia, and I am immediately crestfallen. The rolls were tiny for being priced at $3, yet, a huge bowl of pho is in the $5 range. The peanut sauce accompanying the Bo Bia tasted fine, but was uncannily thick. The spring roll filling was pure sloppiness. The roll's only salvation was the rice paper skin, which was perfectly chewy.
The pho was most pleasant surprise of our meal. It is a beautiful sight to behold. The broth is clear and has just the right amount of fat floating atop. The meat is incredibly generous, yet thoughtfully lean. The noodles are skillfully boiled, soft and malleable but with a touch of bite. La Me's Pho Dac Biet, pho with every part of cow imaginable from tripe to brisket to eye round to meatballs, is a symphony of married flavors. I had worried that Kelly's first experience with pho would be negative, but as I watched her fervently eating away with her fork, I was comforted.
This feeling would not last long. As soon as the Com Suon was brought out to our table, my heart sunk again. From a glance, I could see that the cha, or meat and egg pie, was incredibly dehydrated. Although the grill marks and intoxicating lemongrass scent were beautiful, the pork chop itself was sad, thin, and obviously overcooked.
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Finally, my lasting impression of La Me is a burnt mouth. Wanting to show Kelly how Vietnamese coffee, Café Sua, is served, imagine my surprise when in lieu of a Vietnamese drip filter and a mug of condensed milk, a Styrofoam cup with a straw sticking out arrived at the table. Not being warned of how incredibly hot the coffee was, I took a small sip of the cup's contents and immediately felt the flesh in my mouth being seared. I had waited for 10 minutes to pass from the time the cup arrived to when I actually took the first sip, had even taken the lid off a few times to allow the coffee to cool. Who serves hot coffee with a straw? Can you imagine what kind of riches I'd be enjoying if this had happened, oh, I don't know, at a McDonalds?
The pho, alone, is promising enough to bring me back. I've heard magnificent things about La Me's Vietnamese sub sandwiches. Also, it doesn't hurt that our three dishes plus three drinks cost us a reasonable $18. I imagine the restaurant would be better off if it offered fewer dishes as opposed to offering too many options with too few highlights. I will be back to seek out more gems, but next time, I'll be ordering the iced coffee.
9780 Walnut St.