This past weekend's Pacquiao-Clottey fight marked my first visit to Cowboys Stadium. Being the ever-so-dedicated blogger that I am, I took this opportunity of being in Arlington to try out a restaurant about which I'd been hearing good things. Whenever I am in Arlington, I usually visit my old stand-bys, Le's Fire Pot and Pho Empire, two restaurants I adore but which don't receive enough fanfare. My curiosity about where locals were eating, if not at these two fantastic eateries, led me one day to ask my mother's Vietnamese travel agent where she likes to get her native food fix. The travel agency's office is smack dab in the middle of the heavily Vietnamese populated area of Arlington, near Collins Street and Pioneer Parkway. Without hesitation, she pointed her index finger straight ahead towards a beat-up shopping center across Collins, enthusiastically replying, "Pho Palace! They have very good food and are always busy. Just there. Right across the street!"
I decided to keep Pho Palace in mind for another day. Not that I didn't believe her...OK, I didn't believe her. I had never heard of this restaurant before, and it sits in an almost abandoned shopping center on the northwest corner of Collins and Highway 303. Anyone who is familiar with the Vietnamese food scene in Arlington knows that the Viet restaurants clutter in three main areas, the northwest corner of Collins and 303 not being one of them.
Looking for a place to eat as we headed west from Dallas and to the fight, Pho Palace popped into mind, as it is only about a mile away from the stadium. Driving into the parking lot of the shopping center, it's plain to see that Pho Palace is the most popular, if not sole, attraction of the corner. The drab exterior, however, does not appear to affect the restaurant's business as it was packed and humming with activity late in the afternoon.
As we seated ourselves in a corner table, I looked around the restaurant, checking out the clientele. From older quiet Vietnamese couples to large tables filled with boisterous Asian youngsters, everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the food in front of them. At this sight, my cynicism thawed a bit -- perhaps just a little too soon.
A restaurant named Pho Palace better have an amazing bowl of pho, so I started with a small Pho Dac Biet, a beef pho with everything from meatballs to tripe in it. Deciding to pace myself (because home girl loves her some fatty stadium food), I stick to just the pho before trying the rest of the menu. While waiting for my pho to arrive, a young waitress flashes by and drops off a miserly little plate of herbs and bean sprouts. Strike one.
When the pho arrives, I take it as a promising sign that the coloring of the pho has a natural hue and that no odious smells of spices assault me. After taking my first bite of pho, I begin to understand why the restaurant brings in such a crowd. The pho is quite good. Pho Palace delicately balances a tightrope of sweet, fish sauce, spices and beef.
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Encouraged, I decide to add an order of Com Suon Bi Cha, a pork chop, shredded pork, and steamed pork and egg pie over white rice dish. For a $7 price tag, the pork chop was incredibly thin, small, under-seasoned, and worst of all, dry. Strike two.
After trying two make or break meals, one good, not great, and the other unacceptably underachieving, I am left confused once again as to why some restaurants are crazily popular, while others are undeservingly underappreciated. Our meal comes to around $14, and as I pay my bill, I chide myself for not instead having opted for TWO great dishes at Pho Empire or, even better, a buffet at Le's Fire Pot for the same price.
An hour after leaving Pho Empire, I am struck with a nasty headache and a terrible case of cotton mouth, side effects of a monosodium glutamate attack. While I am not an active member of the MSG police, I am also not a fan of a restaurant that uses far too much of the ingredient. Definitely, a strike three.
Lucky for me, it wasn't anything that overpriced beer, gluttonous nachos, and great seats at the Pacman fight couldn't fix.