Timing has never been kind to me. So it was just my usual temporal bad luck that Rice and Wheat opened its doors for business last Thursday. After seven years of living next to the building that now houses this new Vietnamese/Thai/Sushi restaurant, I am bidding adieu not only to the Maple-Medical District neighborhood, but to Dallas altogether. After all the cursing at the sky for the lack of decent pho in my neighborhood and dragging my hungover bones on Sunday mornings to Richardson or Garland for a bowl of hot, beefy elixir, it seems unfairly appropriate that the perfect bowl of pho would finally emerge in Dallas.
A few recent Vietnamese places have been materializing around town, and although I've been gone from City of Ate for a while, I assure you it doesn't mean I have stopped eating all of the city's latest Asian epicurean offerings. It would have been a disservice for me to contribute to the blog if I didn't have anything really significant to offer regarding my eating experiences from this past year or so. Rice and Wheat's beef pho startled my dormancy and commanded me to blog.
See also: Pho From Home
A month ago, I began stalking the restaurant as soon as the sign went up without even knowing what the cuisine's premise would be. Excitedly, I thought, "Rice means pho noodles, right? Right? Wheat is banh mi baguettes, right? Right??!" (Forgive my fanaticism, but I had endured years of a 2-mile radius of burgers, tacos, and really shameful Asian food. My dream of a pho restaurant within walking distance was possibly becoming a reality.) For months I would drive by, convincing my eyes that the "Open" sign was a bright lit red. At my lowest point, I walked in one day begging for a to-go menu as painters were still brushing fresh coats of latex on the walls. As I turned to leave, dejected and empty-handed, a Vietnamese woman wiping down windows asked me if liked pho. I answered, "yes," to which she replied, "Good, because we are going to have really good pho." Although I finally had confirmation of my suspicions regarding the cuisine, her confidence jarred my initial excitement and replaced it with dread and fear.
Had I set my expectations too high? Surely, such self-assured chutzpah foreshadowed disappointment. After all, how many times have we Dallasites been promised a great bowl of pho?
But she was right. It's very rare that a positive food promise is delivered so simply and honestly, but Rice and Wheat offers a really good pho.
Although I held out hope for Dallas' love affair with pho, I did have misgivings the first time I saw the restaurant's green sign last month. Between the shoddy parking situation and the numerous preceding failed restaurant concepts, this building on the corner of Maple and Medical District was notorious. There was also its unfortunate location next to burger juggernaut Maple and Motor. Could Dallas' flirtations with pho really compete with Dallas' marriage to burgers?
If Rice and Wheat continues to serve this particular bowl of pho I had on a particular Tuesday night, I would say yes. It's a really beautiful bowl of food. Their deep, flavorful broth is not adulterated with the overwhelming spices that many, unfortunately and wrongly, associate with the Vietnamese soup. Not to say that proper pho does not include spices such as Saigon cinnamon, star anise and cloves, etc., but those ingredients should never be the dominant flavor. Likewise, another ill-fated trend that has struck not only American pho, but Vietnam's pho, has been an increased level of sweetness. These are all masking agents (and cost-reducing tactics) that have taken away from what a purely noble bowl of pho should be.
I always taste a broth before adding accouterments such as hoisin, lime or Sriracha. Upon my first sip of the Rice and Wheat pho broth, I knew it was something special. I recalled the best bowls of pho I've ever had with my mom in Vietnam or in California and thought this to be comparable. I felt gratitude (and honestly, surprise) towards the restaurant's proprietors for not trying to pull a fast one on their diners by cheapening the dish. In fact, all the elements of Rice and Wheat's pho are thoughtfully prepared. The owners obviously understand the little, but necessary, things such as the correct type of noodles to use, how to marinate brisket so that it will be tender and perfectly seasoned, and most important, how to balance the tightrope that is the broth's savory, sweet and spice flavor profile. I appreciate when things are done the old-fashioned, hard way and when the results turn out this well.
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Pookie Dang, part owner of the family-run restaurant, described to me their exhaustive 14 hours cooking process of specially ordered beef bones. This overnight simmering is the traditional method of making the broth and is taken for granted by a majority of today's pho fans. Unfortunately, many Vietnamese restaurants sacrifice the lengthy customary process for more profitable boxed or packaged means.
There are no shortcuts being taken with Rice and Wheat's pho. Upon my return a second night to try the pho ga, or chicken pho, I was pleasantly shocked to find that -- opposed to how other restaurants take a simpler route of using the same base soup for all phos -- Rice and Wheat's poultry version used a completely different chicken broth. Dang explained that their pho comes from her husband's aunt's old recipe, and it certainly tastes wholesome and homemade.
So, although I might harbor some feelings of resentment and regret, I'm also happy to know that Dallas now has a truly worthy pho within city lines. Take a break from the burgers and tacos every once in a while and support a family that's trying to give you the real deal. Otherwise, not only might Rice and Wheat suffer the fate of its building's predecessors, but Dallas might continue to never know what truly good pho is.
Rice and Wheat, 4906 Maple Ave., 469-547-2671