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Have you ever wanted to peek inside the kitchen at a busy pho joint? This slideshow is for you.
On my first visit to Pho Ga Dakao, I took Robb Walsh along with me. He was planning a trip to the grocery store next door afterward for supplies to make his own pho bo at home. Neither of us had ever tasted pho ga before, the chicken-based equivalent of the more popular beef pho, and the anticipation mounted each time the waiter delivered something to the table: cups of coffee with condensed milk, a small bowl of ginger sauce, a plate piled with bean sprouts and mint leaves.
Finally, the pho hit our table. We both groaned at the powerful scent, as if someone had condensed that buttery smell of herb-coated roasted chicken into a bowl. That telltale fatty sheen coated the broth, clinging to the sides of the bowls and coating pieces of green onion and cilantro that had floated to the top. Walsh's bowl was filled with dark-meat chicken, mine with everything. He regarded his bowl, impressed, until he saw the mountain of parts floating around in mine.
11778 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072
Region: Outer Loop - SW
Vietnamese spring roll: $4.95
Sweet rice with chicken and Chinese sausage: $5.95
Dakao chicken rice noodle soup special: $6.25
Chicken rice noodle soup with dark meat: $5.75
Dakao chicken rice special: $6.95
Hot coffee with condensed milk: $2
Hot tea pot: $1.50
11778 Bellaire, suite C, 281-879-5899.
I think he was a little jealous of my version, which was filled with all manner of odd, tasty bits and bobs. We ate our individual bowls, slurping away at noodles piled thickly with chopsticks into messy coils on our spoons, but Walsh eyed my bowl throughout the meal. I think he was waiting for me to reach my stopping point. When I had hit the wall, he gleefully liberated a tiny chicken heart from my remaining broth and regarded it with relish. "Take a picture of it!" he implored. I complied, and it was gone in a flash.
With many Vietnamese restaurants, it's usually best to stick to the food that's in the restaurant's name. Pho Ga Dakao is no exception, and looking around the dining room, I saw that everyone else was enjoying the same bowls of pho ga that Walsh and I were having. (Many with extra helpings of tripe or dark-meat chicken.) I made the mistake of ordering something else on another visit, the sweet rice with chicken and Chinese sausage out of the appetizer section of the menu.
The sweet rice cake itself was lovely, all puffed and chewy on the inside with a nice crusty sear on the outside. But the oddly sweet chicken — its crispy skin carrying more than a hint of sugar and cinnamon — and the saccharine Chinese sausage were a bit too much for my tastes.
Do yourself a favor and stick with the pho ga here. No matter how you like it, Pho Ga Dakao can make it for you — there are 11 different combinations to choose from. Washed down with a pot of chrysanthemum tea or sweetened coffee, it's an ideal answer to the cold, blustery days ahead.
"I've never seen another restaurant in Houston that specializes in pho ga," I told the girl behind the counter as I paid my tab at Pho Ga Dakao one recent afternoon.
"We're the only ones in town who do," she smiled back. She introduced herself as Michelle, a family member who occasionally helps out here, before telling me a short history of Pho Ga Dakao itself, the restaurant that has made a business out of selling pho ga — chicken pho — to the masses.
The family who started Pho Ga Dakao a few years ago had owned other Vietnamese restaurants before, including a couple that served mostly rice dishes. When they closed those restaurants down, it wasn't long before friends and family were demanding they open another.
The decision was made to specialize in pho ga, the less well-known sister soup to the beef pho that most Houstonians are familiar with. "We were surprised at how wildly successful it was," she said as she rang me up. "They only use free-range chickens and simmer the broth for 14 to 16 hours," she continued. "It makes for a really clear but really flavorful broth."
And that seems to be the crux of what's made Pho Ga Dakao the powerhouse that it is: prime ingredients, attention to detail and a devotion to bringing a seldom-seen but often craved comfort-food dish to the Bayou City.
There is rarely an afternoon — especially at lunch — when Pho Ga Dakao isn't completely packed. A wait of at least five to ten minutes isn't uncommon while tables are turned over, quickly cleaned and then seated immediately after.
"I figured they'd just put us at a table, communal-style, like they do in New York City," Joanne Witt laughed as we entered the fray one afternoon. Witt, a proficient pho eater and one of my few friends to have eaten pho ga elsewhere, was pleased to see the place so busy. We were the only white faces in the crowd, which became even more apparent when the waiter brought out two sets of silverware after we were seated.
"I take offense at that," Witt mentioned, only half joking. "Do we look like we don't know what we're doing? Like we don't know how to eat pho?" She continued, "I mean, look around. They didn't bring silverware out to any of the other diners." At the first opportunity, she handed the silverware back to the waiter. "We don't need this," she told him. "We know how to use chopsticks."
Gotta say.......been out of the loop for a while. WTF---you are BFF with Rob Walsh? Is that why Jason, john, who ever the f*ck he was was kicked out??? I liked his articles....but a few small people did not....makes ya go ummmmmmmmmmmmmmm?
Sorry, but Jason Kerr's reviews tended to be terrilble. He's just not a good writer, and not good at describing food and eating the way you have to be in order to be a food writer.
That said, this article was a little thin. Might have deserved a blog post more than a full restaurant review.
Jason Kerr kindly filled in during the interim period between when Robb left and I was hired. I was previously the web editor here at the Houston Press before moving into the food critic position, making Robb my former coworker and, yes, friend.
Nothing like a bunch of college frat boys (or sorority girls) with free time on their hands. Keep them coming Katharine.
Classy reponse, KS, to a crude comment.I, for one, am delighted when you and Robb W. dine out together. When the two best food critics in Houston descend on any food spot, then the readers are going to get some good information.
"Vietnamese food is now no more of a novelty ethnic food than Tex Mex"
I'm sorry. Vietnamese food is still a novelty ethnic food, especially compared to something like Chinese food, when the majority of Houstonians can not differentiate dishes between the two cuisines. Too many instances of people ordering a Chinese dish at a Vietnamese restaurant and then feeling disappointed at the food.
Order the special and ask for dry to have soup on the side, with fried shallots and a speical sauce in a seperate bowl with the noodles. Another way to enjoy Cindy's incredible place.
This place was incredible. The pho ga dac biet, those sticky rice cakes (really missed them since Mai's burned down), and the cafe sua da - all just great.