Vietnamese food has gotten a little one-sided in Dallas. In a dining landscape where pho reigns king and champion of Vietnamese fare, the real-deal dishes simmer on the back burner of our attention. It's time to explore outside of the pho bowl. This list showcases some of the best non-pho Vietnamese dishes in Dallas — rich soups, savory meats and curious creations that give a broader taste of Vietnamese cuisine.
Banh cuon (chargrilled pork in rice paper), $8.50
Tony’s Crawfish, 3347 Belt Line Road, Garland
Banh cuon is a dish that pulls from many different elements of Vietnamese cuisine, but it doesn't get the attention it deserves. Northern styled chargrilled pork, southern Vietnamese vegetable slaw, coastal coconut fish sauce and a housemade Hanoi rice paper make up the dish, but when brought together, they create an explosion of flavors and textures. The chewy rice paper is blanketed around the chopped and charred meat, and the folds and crevices hold onto the fish sauce, which the owner makes with her secret ingredient: coconut water. It's served with a vegetable slaw mix and a fried shrimp cake.
Bun bo hue (spicy beef noodle soup), $8.39-$9.19
Pho Tay Do, 1403 E. Campbell Road, Richardson
Vietnamese soup culture is huge, and bun bo hue often gets the short end of the stick — even though we think it’s better than pho in every way. It's a bold statement for sure, but hear us out: From Hue in central Vietnam, the soup has elements of northern and southern cooking, which make it appealing to everyone. If you’re in the mood to get a little adventurous with your soup game, Pho Tay Do is the place to go.
Served as tradition dictates, the bowl of broth arrives screaming hot in a vessel with the diameter of a basketball. (We aren’t kidding; we measured.) Shredded red cabbage, basil and sliced lime stare up from the rich, red broth, with the occasional iceberg of brisket, beef and sausage breaking the surface. Droplets of chili and spiced oils dot the top, giving a good inclination of the heat to come. The flavor is rich like a stew but with a thin consistency. It isn’t as salty as many pho, but it doesn’t need to be; it reaches flavor nirvana without piling on the sodium. It's fresh as can be, with the owner’s watchful eye picking the ingredients that day, and everything but the thick hue noodles are made fresh in house. Next time you’re in the mood for pho, try to remember its better younger brother, bun bo hue, which is balanced between spicy and savory.
Banh xeo (rice flour crepe), $8
La Xanh, 3575 W. Walnut St., Garland
Somewhere between a crepe, an omelet and a dosa, banh xeo is an oily, gigantic, delicious fold-over of homestyle Vietnamese comfort. It’s really a pan-fried rice flour crepe stuffed with a variety of Vietnamese goodies — shredded pork and brisket, bean sprouts, shrimp and green onion — that’s folded over to make a flavor explosion. The outside is crispy and oily like the fried edges of an egg, and the inside is soft and chewy like a freshly steamed crepe. This elegant little appetizer will have you reaching for the fish sauce.
Banh kep (crew pine waffle), $2
La Xanh, 3575 W. Walnut St., Garland
The banh kep, on the other hand, is a sweet starter or dessert that questions your perception of taste. Also known as a pandan waffle, it’s made with screw pine (or pandan) leaves, which imbue the waffle with a unique flavor and a bright green color. Some say it tastes like coconut, others claim it’s a vanilla substitute and some even insist on licorice notes. Regardless of what it actually tastes like, it's undisputedly delicious. Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, it’s the most unusual waffle we’ve ever had.
Green curry chicken, $24
Mot Hai Ba, 6047 Lewis St.
High-end Vietnamese cuisine is a niche market, and chef Peja at Mot Hai Ba has it cornered. A Serbian chef making Vietnamese food like it was his first language, he serves an elegant take on some of the classics. While some may not immediately associate curry with Vietnamese food, green curry chicken is an herbaceous classic that redefines the geographic idea of curry.
More than a dozen toasted spices (bay leaf, cardamom, kaffir lime, star anise, coriander, Thai chili, cinnamon, lime zest, cassia bark, cloves and Szechuan peppercorns) make the incredibly pungent base where coconut milk and cilantro leaf live. It is a luxuriously thick base, topped with seasoned vegetables, for the simple seared airline chicken breast. While the plate may look like a chicken dish at first, don’t let it fool you; the real MVP of this dish is the sauce. Every bite is forced into it with the plunge of a chopstick, and as it enters your mouth, a cacophony of aroma turns into a concert of flavor.
Baked whole catfish, $40-$54
Saigon Block, 2150 E. Arapaho Road, Richardson
Don’t let the price fool you: This catfish is worth every penny. It's covered in a selection of special Vietnamese spices and baked whole, and the flavor is out-of-this-world delicious. It has crispy skin that is closer to fried chicken skin and a soft, delicate, flavorful meat that you and your friends and family can pick clean. It is served with rice paper wrappers and the standard spring roll filling of herbs and vegetables. It’s no wonder owner Dan Banh states the restaurant sells more than 40 whole catfish on a normal day and up to 100 on a busy day. The medium catfish is large enough to fill at least 3 people to uncomfortably full, the large will have up to 5 people adjusting their belts and the extra-large can satisfy a small nation of up to 7. Just don’t forget the sides.
Canh chua ca (sweet and sour fish soup), $13.75-$16.95 and chem chep xao (green curry mussels), $17.95
Phuong, 4045 E. Belknap, Haltom City
Phuong may be a little out of the way for some Dallas residents, but for two of the most deliciously unique and traditional dishes, there is no place better. It opened in 1993 and has run with the same menu since the start, and owner, operator and head chef Sung Truong is 78 years old and showing no signs of stopping. His claim to fame: the green mussels with lime leaf sauce, a type of Vietnamese green curry sautéed mussels (green-lipped mussels imported from New Zealand). which Sung says no one else in the United States does as well as him, and we're inclined to believe him. They are crazy delicious. Somewhere between a Thai green curry and an Indian lemongrass curry, they are saucy, garlicky, sweet, sour, spicy and huge. A large plate will set you back almost $18, but it's easily large enough to share with two or three. Family-style dining is much more common in Vietnamese culture, so buy a round of these green mussels (and a round of beer) for you and your friends.
Another must-try at Phuong is canh chua ca, a sweet and sour fish soup. When we hear of sweet and sour, we think of Chinese takeout's thick, syrupy soup that is so much sweeter than sour. With this dish, the sweet comes from pineapple and the sour from fish sauce and tamarind. It is much more balanced between sweet and sour and has a tangy, robust broth. It's a truly balanced dish that represents Vietnamese flavors in perfect harmony.
Bo luc lac (shaking beef), $10
Pho Bang, 3565 W. Walnut St., Garland
Pho Bang certainly boasts a large selection of Vietnamese food, but when you’re craving beef, their bo luc lac cannot be beat. Originally a French-inspired dish typically only served at weddings (due to the historical cost of beef), the cubed steak dish is called "shaking beef" because of the constant shaking of the wok or sauté pan during cooking. Because the beef is cooked at such high temperatures, along with fragrant aromatics and a heavy handful of garlic, the outside sears and caramelizes to an intensely umami crust, and the inside stays soft and tender. It's served traditionally with white rice, red onion and watercress or arugula.
Che ba mau (three color dessert), $3.99-$4.49
Bistro B, 9780 Walnut St.
Bistro B is like the IHOP of Vietnamese diners, and we mean that in the politest way. It's open until midnight on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends, and those in the know realize that Bistro B is the place to go after a late-night movie or a night at the bar. With fair prices and a crazy huge menu boasting more than 500 items, it has something for everyone.
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While you’re looking over the colossal menu, be sure to order an appetizer of nem nuong ($6.49), the first item on the menu. Four Vietnamese spring rolls, each filled with grilled pork sausage, vegetable slaw and a fried crunch inside, help garner your appetite for the meal to come. Crispy, succulent and served with an orange sauce that is somewhere between a sweet and sour and a garlic fish sauce, it is a perfect amount to tantalize the taste buds while waiting for your main meal.
Likewise, if you’re looking for something sweet to end the meal, the selection of che ba mau (listed on the menu as Che 3 Mau), or three-color jelly dessert, is an experience in texture exploration. As is Bistro B tradition, the selection is of che ba mau is huge, but no matter what you go with, it will be sweet, creamy and rich with a selection of sweetened beans, jelly and seeds. It looks like a Pollock painting and tastes like one, too.
Banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), $3-$3.75
Quoc Bao Bakery, 3419 W. Walnut St., Garland
Quoc Bao Bakery does bread right. The key to an ideal bahn mi is the French bread's rich, golden crust that cracks all over. The outside is crispy but, when lightly squished, produces a carbohydrate symphony. The inside is tender and grips sauces and spreads with ease. Real bahn mi experts also add that the "shoe" of the bread (or the pointed end) will be extra chewy for that last-bite experience. In all of these regards, experts and novices alike will find that Quoc Bao does bahn mi perfectly. The odor of fresh-baked bread coats the entire shop (as well as the parking lot and nearby neighborhoods), and the prices sweeten the deal even further. Starting at only $3 for the meatball sub and only going up another 75 cents for the most expensive grilled chicken and meatball sub, the sandwiches are meant to be purchased en masse. Deliciously charred meat, fresh vegetable slaw, Vietnamese mayo and pork pate work perfectly in sync with one another. It makes sense that Quoc Bao has a buy three, get one free deal; you can easily demolish a quarter-dozen before the next batch of bread has time to rise.