It’s official: The Dallas food fad of 2018 is pho.
Surprised? So are we. But restaurateurs across town have begun taking the beloved Vietnamese soup and transforming it in fascinating ways. At Sapp Sapp Lao & Thai Kitchen, we’re learning about the sheer diversity of traditional preparations across Southeast Asia, with new-to-Dallas Lao recipes such as oxtail pho or a bowl topped with an entire beef rib. Downtown, Statler Hotel chef Graham Dodds brings a Vietnamese touch to the all-day diner Overeasy with a bowl of what he calls “New Mexipho.”
And then there’s Lime Bar and Kitchen, a new restaurant in Las Colinas that looks and acts like the rebellious, party-loving offspring of the traditional Vietnamese restaurant. It’s painted in bright greens. Club music sends a loud dance pulse through the dining room. The full bar includes cocktails and craft beers chosen to pair well with flavors of lime, holy basil, fish sauce and chile peppers. One of the partners is Thi Phung, a veteran nightclub DJ who uses the stage name Thi Rex.
Oh, and Lime Bar and Kitchen’s flagship bowl of lobster pho costs $35.
It’s just about worth the asking price, too. There really is an entire lobster, weighing in at about 20 ounces with a stair-step of tender meat exposed along its backside, peeking over the edge of the bowl. Waitstaff bring a cracker and a bowl for the shell. Paper-thin slices of bright red hot peppers perch tauntingly on the lobster’s flesh. The broth teems with green and white onions.
The lobster pho is best taken on as a team because it is huge, because it is $35 and because disassembling the animal can be fun work for a group. (Only the tail meat is already in the soup.) As for the bowl itself, the best part might be the broth, which starts from a chicken base so that the lobster meat’s delicate flavor is underlined rather than disguised. The broth is richly flavorful but not too salty, cloudy but not murky, seafoody but not pungent. Each sip more or less compels another. Bites of lobster thankfully do not overcook in the piping-hot broth, but they get a kick of energy from those chile peppers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the seafood pho, which starts from the same base, might be the best thing on the menu ($12). This time the filling is not lobster but a mixture of mussels, clams, shrimp and scallops. Once again, each morsel of seafood arrives softly tender, without a hint of rubber. The broth is so flawlessly balanced that our waiter didn’t even bother bringing the usual bottles of hoisin sauce and Sriracha. (Of course, that might have been an oversight.) The noodles get caught in tangles with thin, round slices of white onion. It’s some of the very best pho in North Texas.
There are other eye-popping bowls of pho here — like a “bone marrow” bowl featuring a huge beef bone, a spicy filet mignon version and a vegetarian feature starring zucchini noodles — but it’s reassuring to know that plain old traditional beef pho is good, too ($9.50). With a rather murky brown color, this will never be as Instagram-famous as the lobster version, but the broth is spiced elegantly and simmered for 14 hours, creating the perfect comfort meal for cold weather or a sniffly nose.
And there is much more than soup on Lime Bar’s menu. There are crossover fusion oddities such as fried avocado egg rolls ($4), which proved surprisingly addicting with their contrasts between cool, soft, fatty avocado and crispy, hot pastry wrapping. The seaweed salad is an unfortunate letdown with unbalanced dressing ($5) and the pork belly buns sport thin strips of meat and steamed buns that are too dense and chewy ($7). But the idea of putting long, fat stripes of fresh sashimi in spring rolls is simply ingenious. Ahi tuna sashimi spring rolls ($9 for two), which provide a generous portion of fish wrapped with crisp veggies, should become a new appetizer staple. Why doesn’t everyone serve them?
Phung says that experimentation is at the heart of Lime’s identity.
“We’re trying to break away from the traditional Vietnamese restaurant,” she explains. “We try to work on great plating. We still want to keep that authentic taste but make it look better.”
She says that when she approached the rest of the business partners with the idea for lobster pho, which she saw at a restaurant in Las Vegas, “they thought I was insane — it’s kind of expensive. I said if Vegas does it, why can’t we?”
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The answer is that they most certainly can. The lobster pho could have been Instagram bait, a mere stunt dish designed to be photographed but not eaten. Instead, it is very good, and its meaty siblings are some of the best pho in the region. Not every invention here works perfectly, but the best ones are exciting.
And the team behind Lime is still dreaming up new ideas. The lobster pho has undergone changes; Phung says the original broth recipe, using shrimp and lobster shells, was “overwhelming.” And more dishes are in development, especially beefy main courses to supplement the bowls of soup.
It will be fun to see what this inventive restaurant comes up with next. This is a peek at a new generation of Vietnamese-American restaurants, one that combines respect for tradition, clever new ideas and a talent for camera-ready stunt foods that actually taste good. It may not have the serious culinary credentials of Mot Hai Ba or San Francisco’s Slanted Door, but it compensates with a youthful spirit that suggests even better things are yet to come. If Lime Bar is an indication of more creativity on the way, then the new generation can’t take over soon enough.
Lime Bar and Kitchen, 949 W. Royal Lane, Irving. 214-613-2079, limebarandkitchen.com. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.