Restaurant Reviews

Pho Flop

It's like an Indo-Chinese revolving door, that space. Back in 1996 it was Saigon Savor. Then it was Saigon Bistro. As Saigon Bistro is how I remember the space. It seemed more elegant back then. That's because it was. Carpet -- or maybe it was big throw rugs -- hugged the floor. White tablecloths draped the tables. The retro-tech barstools, cut and curvy high chairs covered in teal, yellow, and purple vinyl to match the chandeliers, are gone. Mostly. There are still a couple of those stylish teal stools mixed with ramshackle replacements at the bar, which doesn't serve alcohol. It serves coffee, iced tea, lemonade, and something called salty lemonade soda (quite a good drink).The black chairs with teal padded seats still furnish the dining room. But the floor is covered in black and white linoleum tiles, and the tabletops have deep impressionistic brushes of color, as though they had been tie-died and petrified. The lunges at faux elegance have deteriorated into grasps at perverse sophistication. But it does have a fish tank with those goldfish that have foreheads the size of cantaloupes.

Sometime after it was Saigon Bistro, this restaurant became Saigon Rex. There may have been a few in between that I missed. Then, some six months ago, the owners retagged it Que Huong Noodle & Grill (there are two additional Que Huong locations in Richardson and Plano).

The linchpin of Que Huong (which means "native village") is pho, that wonderfully aromatic and soothing Vietnamese noodle soup (usually served at breakfast) that dates back to the 10th century. But the pho here, while adequate, is not necessarily endearing. It's replete with flaws, though nothing that can't be choked down.

Beef pho is a soup that can contain a frightening assortment of meat products, such as soft tendon, basically a piece of knuckle, and bible tripe, sections of ox stomach.

The pho with the whole shootin' match has the benign numeric designation "P01" and the somewhat uncatchy moniker tan nam gau gan sach. Pho comes in three sizes: regular, large, and extra-large. The regular size is huge, so the other sizes are either for sharing or for bladder-control exercises. P01 had unimpressive cuts of beef -- eye of round steak, flank, and fat brisket. They were chewy and gristly. The tendon had white creamy tentacles across the surface of the broth, tentacles that melted in the mouth, adding a slippery slick of richness to the tongue. Crinkled thin sheets of round steak bubbled with fat pockets, and the bland broth was sown with overcooked rice noodles.

Pho is accompanied by a plate of bean sprouts, sticks that branch off into leathery basil leaves, lime wedges, and jagged rings of jalapeño. These ingredients are pinched and added to the broth to give it fresh resilience and aroma.

The pho here is not necessarily bad. It's just that the flaws are pronounced enough to keep you from embracing it without flinching. "H4" (mi do bie) is seafood debris drifting in a bland broth with scraps of cilantro, scallions, and jalapeño. Straw-hued egg noodles are firm and hearty. But the seafood flesh, angle-cut shanks of surimi, shrimp, sponge-rubbery fish balls, and squid tubes with little stubs where the tentacles used to be, ranged from dull to unexciting with hints of hand-soap lather on the finish.

Even when poultry is added there was slippage. "G1" (pho ga), chicken rice-noodle soup, was loaded with gummed-up overcooked rice noodles and dry chicken scattered among bits of carrot and scallion.

Que Huong is outfitted for soup. A little rack near the condiments on the table not only holds paper-wrapped chopsticks, but it also has a little nook stacked with those little white soupspoons that look like pygmy ladles. Yet if the soup doesn't float your boat, Que Huong has other dishes based on rice or vermicelli. "C3" (Com bi thit nuong cha) is good, in a rustic sort of way. A platter spread with white rice holds sheets of thinly sliced grilled pork. The meat is rippled with little patches of fat and gristle, but the richness trumps the blemishes, or maybe it's rich because of those blemishes. There was a little surprise in this dish, a thing called egg casserole. It looks a stolen scrap of omelet, but this fluffy strip of pale yellow is firm and supple with little specks of chewy, tasty pork.

Our vermicelli sampling didn't hold up nearly as well. "V3" (bun ga cha gio) was saddled with an overcooked, sticky knot of vermicelli in a bowl with pickled jicama and carrot, though the pieces of chicken were fairly moist and tasty this time.

These rice and vermicelli dishes have little sides of fresh vegetables: cucumber, tomato, and carrot. They were mostly good, except on those occasions when we noticed little rot dots in the tomato slices.

The little staples you might expect to come off with aplomb -- rolls of various stripes -- hit with a bomb. The Vietnamese egg rolls were dry, chewy, and greasy, while the spring rolls were loose and blasé. The only appetizer of interest was the barbecued meatballs, little reddish-brown golf balls sprinkled with peanut dust. These tight spheres chewed well and were greaseless.

Still, the pho is foo. Yet maybe it's better to look good than to feel good. So I might suggest Que Huong restore the full collection of vinyl barstools and restock the bar. And maybe get those goldfish a plastic surgeon.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz