A few years ago, a night out in downtown Dallas meant either a fancy restaurant or a tourist trap. A few good restaurants were downtown, like CBD Provisions and the French Room, but not many of the kind of casual spots that graced Uptown and Deep Ellum. Residents commented on a serious shortage of neighborhood hangouts.
That has been changing fast. The farmers market rebuilt itself, for better and for worse, as a food hall first and farmers market second. Food trucks proliferated at Klyde Warren Park. Café Izmir opened on Ervay Street and hotels like the Omni and Joule began investing in casual restaurants. The latest newcomer, on Ervay across from Comerica Bank Tower, is Sapa House.
Sapa House is one of those “pan-Asian” restaurants with a menu spanning thousands of miles, as if the cultural differences are no big deal. Its food is about half Vietnamese and half Japanese, specializing in sushi, pho and banh mi. There’s pad Thai, too. Confusing? Probably. Good? Actually, yes.
The crowds already know. Even on a Monday night, Sapa House buzzes with activity. One large table explained that they were downtown residents enjoying the restaurant’s terrific happy hour, which lasts from 3 to 7 daily and features discounted bar snacks and $2 domestic beers. The interior has undergone a snazzy renovation since its days as Pho Colonial, with a black-and-white color scheme, attractive bar and small patio.
Much of the food is worth enjoying too. Among the happy hour appetizers is takoyaki ($4.95), fried Japanese dough balls with a morsel of octopus in the center. Sapa House’s takoyaki is light and almost creamy in texture and surrounded by a pool of agreeably spicy chili sauce. Octopus is served grilled, too, as an alternative to satay ($7.95), the tiny cephalopods served on skewers, their edges charred until crisp. This is not a dish to convert octopus skeptics, though, since the critters’ tough texture is readily apparent.
Seaweed salad ($4.95), topped with black and white sesame seeds, is a gentle pleasure to return to throughout the meal. On the other hand, the lemongrass pig’s ears ($7.95) must be eaten quickly while still hot; as they cool down, the pleasurable crunch and chili spice give way to excessive saltiness.
The heavy-handed salt returns again in the caramel sauce on the clay pot salmon ($13.95), though the salmon itself is cooked perfectly, flaky and butter-soft. This dish is a simple fix away from being a winner.
That clay pot salmon is part of a solid lineup of Vietnamese main courses, highlighted by shaking beef ($10.95), a beloved national stir-fry dish that hasn’t quite achieved the same American fame as pho or banh mi. Cubes of beef are marinated in a simple mix of soy and fish sauces, mirin, oil, salt and pepper, then stir-fried with onions. The result is big-time flavor, and Sapa House happily avoids committing the most common sin: tough, overcooked meat.
Sapa House also makes a good, generous bowl of pho. The broth is flavorful, though not the city’s best, and the beef version (small $8.95) arrives with quite a lot of three different cuts of meat: brisket, tenderloin and meatball. Even with a smaller-than-average side plate of bean sprouts, basil and other fixings, that formidable array of beef makes for a filling bowl.
Even if the other main courses aren’t exactly thrilling, they’re all competent. Sapa House’s sushi, for instance, is perfectly fine, from humble salmon rolls ($5.95) to the more complex red spider roll ($12.95), with its avocado and fried crab filling. And even the pad thai is OK, if a little one-note (chicken, $9.95). For dessert, try sharing one of the gigantic bowls of green tea or yuzu ice cream ($4.50), the latter a light, almost sorbet-like treat made with a citrusy fruit not too far off from lemon.
One element Sapa House hasn’t quite mastered: service. Appetizers and main courses sometimes arrive simultaneously, and plates don’t always get cleared after they’re done. On one visit, the waitress and manager each stopped by multiple times to ask if the main courses were satisfactory, but despite the attention, a cold, finished appetizer remained on the table after dessert was over and the bill was paid.
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Sapa House’s food is, mostly, the kind of thing you tell a friend was, “eh, pretty good.” Its happy hour and atmosphere, though, are terrific. The $2 domestic beers, $3 Asahi and Sapporo, cheap wells and a decent wine list are welcome sights for the downtown office crowd, and at the end of a long Monday, a group of coworkers could easily take care of some good discounted sushi and pig's ears.
The restaurant smartly plays to this strength, with its friendly vibe and spiffy interior. On the patio, dog owners can order a bowl of chicken hearts for a hungry pooch. (There are plain old kibbles, too; both are $3.95.) And the cocktail list seems geared to crowd-pleasing, with a "Cheeky Lychee" combining that fruit with vodka, a chocolate martini and the monstrous "Liquid Marijuana," which brings together Captain Morgan, Malibu, Midori and blue curaçao.
Like Café Izmir a block up the street, Sapa House is a big step in the transformation of downtown Dallas. As the neighborhood becomes increasingly lively at night, downtown will demand middle-of-the-road bars and restaurants to fill the enormous gap between the French Room and Chipotle. It will reward good happy hours, diversified food and dog-friendly outdoor seats. Ask the crowds who pile into Sapa House at the end of their Monday. They needed a place like this.
Sapa House, 1623 Main St., Suite 102., 214-748-0746, sapahousedallas.com, open 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday (kitchen closes an hour early every night).