Phở One

Phở One
April 17, 2008

I’ve passed Phở One many, many times while on my way to the warm, waiting arms of Bistro Le Cep and keep telling myself that “One of these days…I swear I’m finally going to try that place!”  Today was that day.

And, dear God, am I glad that I did.

Phở One was packed when I arrived with my lunch companions.  Always a good sign in my book…  The staff were friendly and acted as excited to see us as if we were the only customers in the restaurant.  Since there were three of us, we decided to go family-style with the appetizers and entrees, to maximize our eating potential.

Now, a word of warning:  Phở One does not have the traditional foreigners-catering-to-clueless-Americans menu whereby there are pictures of the food which you can simply point to, perhaps while grunting.  They do have some helpful explanations of the various dishes, in case you’re unfamiliar with the delicious bounty of Vietnamese cuisine.  They do not, however, have pronunciations of the dishes which are — invariably — never pronounced as they are spelled (phở is “fuh,” bun is “boon,” thit is “tit,” etc.).  So, if you’re like me and either have an extremely limited Vietnamese vocabulary or none at all, simply order by the menu numbers, such as B-6 or C-4.  Leave the mangled pronunciations to the next table.

We ordered two different types of spring rolls to start: your garden-variety fried rolls and your soft, rice paper rolls.  The soft rolls had the added benefit of having enormous strips of barbecued chicken and hoisin sauce inside; they were much heartier than your typical spring roll.  We also ordered chè ba màu along with our jasmine iced teas, so that they would be nice and melty by the end of the meal.

The entrees came out more quickly than expected.  The other patrons seemed to be getting the same quick, efficient service, making Phở One a good choice for a lunch hour destination.  We ordered the standard phở tái (rice noodle soup with thin strips of medium-rare beef and various herbs); another standard, bún thịt nướng (vermicelli with barbecued pork and fresh vegetables); and a bit of an outsider, cơm tấm bi cha trung opla (rice with shredded pork, pork loaf and one egg, sunny side up).  I call the cơm tấm bi cham trung opla the outsider since I wouldn’t normally order my cơm tấm with an egg…or pork loaf.  But that’s the way my dining companion likes hers, and so that’s the way we had it.

I have to say, I really liked the egg with the cơm tấm.  It gave the whole thing an almost chicken-fried rice feel, frankly.  It was served with the traditional bowl of broth, meant to wet your throat while eating so much sticky rice.  I highly recommend it as an alternative to the regular routine of phở.

The phở tái itself was simply divine: fragrant, fresh and addictive.  When my Vietnamese dining companion jokingly complained that Phở One didn’t have any meatball phở (bò viên) on their menu, the waiter simply grinned and within a minute had brought out a small bowl filled with meatballs.  He told her in Vietnamese, “You have to know to order them!”  A good tip, since their meatballs are perhaps the best bò viên I’ve ever tasted.

My bún thịt nướng was the same wonderful comfort food that I’ve known and loved since college.  I confess to almost always ordering bún with chopped up eggrolls — perhaps the Vietnamese equivalent of putting macaroni and cheese on your grilled cheese sandwich, if we’re sticking to the comfort food analogy — which isn’t very good for you, but stills your soul.  Today, however, I stuck with traditional pork and felt, suddenly and startingly, like a grown-up.  It was an odd thought to associate with a bowl of noodles, but I comforted myself that at least I was a grown-up with fun taste in food.

Throughout the meal, the sight of the chè ba màu waiting for us was almost like gilt on a lily.  We were all stuffed by the end of our family-style dig-in, but managed to make room for our dessert drink.  If you’re put off by the idea of beans — mung beans, at that — in your dessert and/or drink and/or dessert drink, please just do me a favor and try one little spoonful of chè ba màu.  I promise that it will change your entire outlook on beans as a sweet, delicious dessert alternative.  It might not make you crave chocolate any less, but you’ll definitely broaden your sweet-tooth horizons.  And that’s never a bad thing…  The chè ba màu at Phở One was like their meatballs: probably the best I’ve ever had.

The whole atmosphere in Phở One is very traditional: you receive a large spoon and a pair of chopsticks with which to eat your phở; there is the always-amusing wheel of condiments on the table containing all the old favorites (hoisin sauce, fish sauce, chili sauce, etc.); as previously mentioned, the cơm tấm dishes come with a bowl of nước chấm to wash down the rice; and, perhaps most importantly, the check is not brought to your table.  The Vietnamese consider it quite rude to bring a tab directly to a table, since it is seen as “rushing” the customer out of the restaurant.  You’ll need to pay up front.

If you’re in the neighborhood and happen to be craving not just phở, but any other Vietnamese food, I couldn’t reccommend Phở One any more highly.  The prices are reasonable, the staff are friendly and the food is sitting at about an eleven on the one to ten scale.  Just remember their delicious meatballs aren’t on the menu!

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Houston’s Top 10 Restaurants

The ever-reliable palate of Anonymouseater over at Food in Houston has posted a new Top 10 list for 2008, with his favorite upscale restaurants here in town:

Houston’s Top 10 Upscale Restaurants 2008

I couldn’t agree more with the inclusion of Le Mistral and am very happy to see that other people — with more refined tastes than my own — appreciate it and give it the love it deserves.  Sylvain and David Denis (the front and the back of the house, respectively) are some of the warmest, friendliest people you’ll ever meet in the restaurant business.  Sylvain makes it a point to visit each table, every night, and offer suggestions, anecdotes or just friendly company.  And any compliments directed to his brother, David, will almost always net you a delighted visit from the man himself.

The other restaurants listed are an admirable mix of established restaurants and new players.  I can’t wait to try Feast, and I’m sure I’ll have a good time recapping an entire meal of entrails and offal.

That said, while I enjoy haute cuisine as much as the next person, I have to say that I’m more eagerly anticipating the release of Anonymouseater’s next Top 10 list, for “cheap eats.”

A Daunting List of Martinis

Quick!  Someone call Bret Easton Ellis!  Insufferable pompousness, desperate and clawing attempts at coolness, and plastically-pretty young things who wish desperately that they were in LA (or even Dallas) instead of Houston will have a new home soon.

All of that monstrous development going on at Westheimer and Kirby — the mixed-use development calling itself “West Ave” — recently announced the restaurants and bars that will be occupying the ground floor of the complex.  Cleverley and Swamplot were both there, with details on the new entrants to the Houston restaurant scene:

All are culinary imports from Dallas, San Antonio, or California, though one has already moved nearby… — Swamplot

Uh-oh.  This doesn’t bode well.  San Antonio, I can live with.  But the last thing I’m interested in are imports from our tacky sister to the north or the preening navel-gazers in California.  Cleverley had even more to share:

Cru
Established January 2002 in Dallas’s West Village, Cru was conceived as an exciting urban destination to experience and explore the fascinating world of wine.

The Social House at WEST AVE
Syn Group, the creators of Clear Ultra Lounge and The Social House at West Village in Dallas (just opened) will be debuting their premier gastropub concept in Houston.

Swig will feature a “daunting” list of martinis…

Maybe I’m just feeling grumpy and uncharitable today, but I have always felt that one of the things that made Houston an amazing city for restauranteurs and foodies was its welcoming attitude towards new chefs, untested ventures and local flavor.  And one of the things that I, personally, love about Houston is their unwelcoming attitude towards most chain restaurants and chain concepts — until recently.

We are a city of constantly-shifting crust and mantle, a volcanic city, a city constantly reworking itself and remaking itself and never standing still.  And somehow, to me, that existence doesn’t fit with Applebee’s and On The Border.  Chain restaurants pin you down, make you like every other city and every other suburb and every other useless nightmare of concrete and strip malls.  “Concepts” and “areas” and “neighborhoods” that developers shove down your throat — that DON’T develop organically — kill a city like Houston.

Why are we trying to be like Dallas?  Why are we trying to be like Los Angeles?  More importantly, why would we want to?  Why do we want stucco houses and chains?  Why do we want their restaurants and their concepts and their fake, mass-patented neighborhoods that a bunch of guys in a boardroom developed in hopes of lining their own pockets with more money while destroying the soul of a city?

“West Ave” isn’t the bad guy here.  It’s just a symptom of a larger problem, of people trying to make Houston into something she isn’t.  Kristen Mack had it right in her column last year (bolding is mine):

Houston’s experiencing its biennial identity crisis.

We’re going through that period when we try to define the city — or worse, allow outsiders to do it for us.

What we don’t need is anyone telling us how to sell ourselves, whether to attract people to visit or stay. We can do without the pointers on how to promote our city or build our collective self-esteem.

Houstonians should stop trying to package and prettify the city for others and focus on making it better for people who are already here.

The first thing we need to realize is that people come here to work. If you aren’t from these parts, there is no other reason to be drawn to this city.

Washington, D.C., is defined by government and politics. Los Angeles has entertainment and film as its top draws. New York is all about finance and fashion.

Houston’s not a great place to visit, unless all you want to do is eat out and shop. You have to stay here a while to appreciate the place.

Anyone who gives it a chance comes to find that, unlike any other major city, Houston grants easy entree to people who work hard.

This city always has been guided by a laissez-faire mentality.

Besides, people who try too hard or politicians that desperately strive to make Houston “world class” are just plain tiresome.

When are people going to learn?  Houston will define itselfWe don’t want or need your input, guidance or suggestions.  And shame on the Houstonians who are accepting them, instead of allowing our city to move forward and recreate herself as she always has.

And in ten years, with any luck, West Ave and its ilk will be on the same chopping block as the Memorial Heights Apartments.

NCheeseAA Tournament Underway!

stilton

For those of you who don’t slavishly follow basketball, don’t understand people who slavishly follow basketball, and would rather sit down with a wedge of Stilton and a handful of crackers, TomatoNation has a tournament for you!

The NCheeseAA Tournament is currently underway over at TomatoNation, where you can take part in the April Madness of naming the top cheese from a list of mighty contenders.  The first round of voting, The Round of 64, is now open.  Go and caucus for your favorite cheese, whether it be Chabichou de Poitou or Kraft Singles.  Or, as the inimitable Sars says, “Go rock the cheese vote!”

The Red Lion Pub, England

…called so, of course, to differentiate this post from my not-so-favorable review of our very own “Red Lion Pub” right here in Houston.  No, no.  The Red Lion Pub in Holmes Chapel may as well exist on an entirely different planet from its cousin in Texas.

On our first full day in England, we set about on a drive down the narrow, winding roads past hand-laid stone walls and brilliantly green fields full of fat sheep.  Richard drove me through the posh streets of Prestbury, alongside the immense, 21st-century monolith that is Jodrell Bank, underneath viaducts and train tracks until we reached his second hometown in Holmes Chapel.

Holmes Chapel
The main street, Holmes Chapel.

I say second hometown, since his childhood was — as so many of ours were — divided between places.  He spent his youth in Bollington, a mill town up the road, and his adolescence in Holmes Chapel.  The village is older even than Alderley Edge, having been recorded in 1086 in the famous Domesday Book as “Chapel Hulme.” Coming of age in Holmes Chapel leant him a keen familiarity with the three local pubs: The Red Lion, The George and Dragon and The Swan.

The Red Lion Pub in Holmes Chapel
The Red Lion.

The Red Lion was his pub of choice, located only a short walk past the church and grocers from his house.  In his youth, he spent many a lunch there with his schoolmates and many a long, cold night surrounded by friends.  Richard recalls that it was the epitome of a tatty, well-loved old pub: worn and slightly-sticky carpets, very basic bar and low, sloping ceilings.  When we first approached the place on foot that day, Richard presciently remarked, “Looks a bit spiffed up.”

Red Lion Window
Windows.

Entering The Red Lion was like walking into an expertly decorated hotel lobby, perhaps an Aspen boutique hotel, with trendy fabrics and cushy armchairs all perfectly akimbo.  Richard stopped, mouth open, marvelling at what was clearly a different Red Lion than the one he left behind over six years ago.  While I admired the upmarket window treatments and flower arrangements, my poor husband stared blankly at what I imagine was his utterly destroyed adolescence.

A Pint of Bitter, Please
A pint of bitter, please.

The Red Lion is one of many pubs that’s been bought out by the large chain Ember Inns, which is itself under the umbrella of its enormous parent company, Mitchells and Butlers.  Ember Inns operates over 2,000 pubs throughout the UK.  This may seem like a large number, but keep in mind that even the tiniest of villages — like Holmes Chapel, for example, with a population of only 5,600 people — has at least three pubs.  Not having any frame of reference within which to judge, I can’t say whether or not this is a good thing.  I enjoyed the non-pubby atmosphere of the place more than I expected to, given my innate hatred of chains.  That hatred was mollified by the fact that the building itself doesn’t seem to have changed any (according to Richard) except for the new decor and presence of a higher-end restaurant inside.  Richard, to this day, remains mostly ambivalent towards the changes.

Wild Mushroom Dish Closeup
Wild mushroom risotto in puff pastry with vegetables.

The food itself was wonderful and very inventive.  Take, for example, my meal: a wild mushroom risotto inside puff pastry.  A bit on the starchy side, yes, but — delicious!  Oh, so delicious.  Who would have ever thought to put risotto inside of puff pastry?  Ember Inns, I suppose.  The main dish — containing five different types of wild mushrooms — was served with a side of roasted sweet potatoes and butternut squash (the English seem to love their roasted root vegetables, which I wholeheartedly support), some roasted potatoes and a side of mashed potatoes with gravy.  Okay, so the side selection needed a bit less…starchiness, I agree, but you couldn’t argue with that main dish.

Wild Mushroom Risotto in Pastry with...a lot of starches
I have now gained a solid understanding of why Richard thinks it’s okay to have chips (fries), mashed potatoes and roast potatoes all on the same plate as side dishes.

Richard ordered scampi (which he, once again, ate before I could get a picture) which is strikingly different from our own “scampi” over here: it’s battered and fried shrimp (a.k.a “prawns”) served with chips and peas.  When I mentioned to him that our version of “scampi” meant that the shrimp was sauteed in white wine and garlic butter, he just peered at me as if I were out of my mind.

Main street in Holmes Chapel
Heading back out to the main street.

We needed a long walk after eating so many potato-based items, and headed out from The Red Lion satiated, ready to attack the rest of the day with very little need for any other food, save a very light dinner that night.  English cuisine is wonderful in the sense that it fuels you to face all the walking that one needs to do on a daily basis, and seems to protect you from the cold from the inside out.  As we left The Red Lion, Richard seemed slightly sad.  I asked him what he thought of the new-and-improved pub of his youth.  He thought for a while before diplomatically stating, “Well…the food was great.”

The De Trafford Arms

I couldn’t quite think of how to begin describing such a wonderful and diverse trip as the one from which I’ve recently returned (pardon the absence…), so I decided to begin as I usually do: with a restaurant review.

Most of my readers will probably be unfamiliar with the little town that Richard and I were staying in during the England leg of our journey.  It’s a small village in rural Cheshire, only thirty minutes from Manchester by train.  It’s called Alderley Edge, and it was perfect.

The De Trafford Arms
The De Trafford Arms.

Alderley Edge has existed as a village since the 13th century and, while it has most definitely changed during that time– and even in just the past few decades — it’s retained an immense amount of charm, personality and warmth.  Richard’s stepfather was born and bred in Alderley and still maintains a residence there, which were lucky enough to stay in during our vacation.  The Alderley Edge of his youth was decidedly different from the Alderley of today, packed with Range Rovers and WAGs, but it’s still a beautiful village with a main street offering plenty of options for the intrepid diner and a glut of butchers and cheese shops for the intrepid cook.

Lambing Season
It’s lambing season!

The de Trafford family — one of the oldest families in England — has owned most of the land in the immediate area of Alderley Edge since the 15th century and, to this day, the brilliant pub at the end of the main street retains their name, the same name also given to The Theatre of Dreams: Old Trafford.  The De Trafford Arms is everything that an American — like yours truly — imagines an authentic English pub to be: timbered ceilings, pleasantly worn carpets, shining bronze footrests at the bar, old paintings and crackling fires.  In fact, the pub itself is only about 200 years old — fairly young by English standards — but you still feel as though you’ve slightly stepped back in time upon entering.

De Trafford Arms
Inside the De Trafford.

The first night that Richard and I visited The De Trafford, it was hovering around 34° outside and the smallest of snowflakes were slowly making their way down to the streets.  Wearing a scarf and winter coat is always a novelty to me, living in a sauna as I do here in Houston, and the trip down The De Trafford through the biting cold was a welcome and enjoyable change.  The twenty minute walk from his parents’ house led us through the quiet neighborhoods, past the train station and church, and finally down the brightly-lit main street to the pub.  We had only just landed a few hours ago and were still full from airplane food (BMI serves absolutely brilliant airplane food, I kid you not — even in coach! — I had cheese and onion spaetzle on the trip over and butternut squash risotto on the trip back), so we had decided to just get an order of chips and some beer.

Nook
A quiet nook.

The new trend in England is the much ballyhooed “gastropub.”  In nicer towns and villages, the gastropub seems to be the rule now, rather than the exception.  This means no more ratty pub grub or sad, little bags of crisps behind the counter.  Instead, the focus is on high-quality, fresh, seasonal, local food mixed with traditional favorites.  The gastropubs boast of their on-site chefs and proudly display their specials on chalkboards as you enter.  It’s a far cry from most of the pubs that we have here.

Lunch Specials
Today’s special is…

The De Trafford offers a limited selection of draft beer — just the standards, really (Carlsberg, Foster, Hoegaarden) — but they also offered something else I greatly enjoyed: a selection of rotating guest beers.  I quickly found my niche with the Jenning’s Cumberland Ale.  I am a huge fan of bitter, and England is truly the perfect place for me to indulge that preference.  I placed my order at the bar, where the adorable bartenders started briefly at hearing an American accent before expertly pouring a half-pint for me and a large lager for Richard. My small nip of Cumberland Ale was the perfect nightcap and the perfect beginning to a long and wonderful journey through Cheshire.

World's Largest Hoegaarden
When I say “small nip” and “large lager,” I mean it.

The next day, we were back at the De Trafford, enjoying lunch with Richard’s friends from the neighboring village of Wilmslow.  I opted for the scrumptious-sounding “Roasted Root Vegetable Tart with Melted Brie” and was not disappointed.  The tart was full to bursting with roasted sweet potatoes, winter squash and carrots, topped with some delicious slivers of that sweet Brie.  The plate also contained a large serving of steamed broccoli and cauliflower, a handful of crisp and refreshing watercress (although it may have been purely a garnish, I ate it anyway) along with some roasted red potatoes topped with a very mild pesto sauce.  It was a highly satisfying lunch on a cold day.  Richard apparently felt the same way about his lovely-looking Steak and Guinness Pie (steak, Guinness, bacon and lard inside a puff pastry — what’s not to love?), as it was inhaled before I could take a picture of it.

Delicious Tart
Roasted Root Vegetable Tart with Melted Brie.

Overall, The De Trafford Arms couldn’t have been a more ideal start to our little tour around Cheshire.  The staff were welcoming and friendly and the pub itself was charming.  On the other hand, it also quickly reminded us that it wasn’t going to be cheap to eat in England, given both the terrible rate of exchange at the present and the fact that even pub food is now pricey.  We weren’t going to escape England with full wallets, but at least we knew there was a lot of wondeful food waiting for us in return…