Feeder Road Pho
Too many Houston restaurants are in strip shopping centers, have you noticed? It's one of the quirks of our metropolitan dining experience I find myself apologizing for too often. "Don't worry," I tell out-of-towners looking askance at yet another bleak, shoebox-size storefront. "This is just how we do things here."
Dalat Vietnamese Bistro is an excellent case in point. This restaurant is not only imprisoned in a mushroom-colored concrete center that seemingly sprang up overnight, it's smack on the roaring Southwest Freeway across from the not-yet-moribund Compaq Center. What are the odds, I wondered, hands over ears in the parking lot, that this place is going to be any good?
The cafe was strangely empty on the evening of my first visit. Cars choked the freeway and the feeder, all hell-bent on squeezing into that arena garage, none bound for Dalat. I'd think Dalat would be perfectly positioned to feed a concert crowd before or after a show, but perhaps the grade-school girls squealing that night for the Backstreet Boys don't cotton to upscale Vietnamese cuisine. Their mommies might, but they passed us by in honking herds of sport utility vehicles without a second glance.
Inside, the room is prettier than I had guessed it would be from the feeder road. What a difference a little design savvy makes: It is set diagonally across the corner space, which helps break up that deadly foursquare monotony, and it sports a small, triangular loft upstairs for dining quietly tête-$agrave;-tête. Downstairs, each of the eight tables is soothingly candlelit, clothed in crisp white paper over crisp white linen. Antiques and the occasional orchid complete the understated style statement. There are more tables on the spacious patio in front, but I can't bring myself to sit out there; the relentless bellow from the freeway is too depressing.
I've compared Dalat's dinner menu with its lunch menu, and though both boast the same elegant, long-stemmed font, the nighttime offerings far surpass the daytime fare. At noon, for example, the appetizer choices are pretty much limited to spring rolls ($3.25 for two, $5.95 for four) and imperial egg rolls ($5.95). The spring rolls are prettily wrapped in translucent, slightly sticky rice paper, stuffed with lean pork, whole shrimp, slender noodles and lots of minty greenery, and I award bonus points for the wonderfully chunky-and-creamy peanut dipping sauce. The egg rolls are crisp and flawless, but, well, they're still just egg rolls. Perhaps a punchier fish sauce would have helped, but this version has been toned down to bunny-slope blandness. Both sets of rolls were fine, just fine, but I was much more excited about the soft-shell crab appetizer ($9.95) offered only at dinner: The crab was flash-fried golden and garlicky with chewy bits of caramelized white and green onions clinging to its crust. Now that's a lickable plate. I was also pleased to find a better than average selection of wines by the glass; of course the white list included chardonnays, but also a fruity Riesling and an elegantly dry Fumé Blanc, thank you very much.
Underseasoning also inhibits the lunchtime entrées, although I suppose that makes sense for Greenway Plaza's office workers, condemned to spend the rest of the afternoon elbow to elbow in a stuffy conference room. The bowls of pho and noodle soup, such as the shrimp-and-pork edition ($7.50), are big and handsome. The ingredients are impeccably fresh, the broth a gorgeous glowing red, but the whole is strangely lacking in presence. My dining companion was comforted by the generous, steaming bowl, but I yearned for something a little less gentrified, a little more downtown funky. Even after he'd stirred in the chili and the hoisin and the fresh jalapeños, I noticed, he didn't break a sweat or even so much as sniffle.
We were all pleased, though, with two switch-hitter plates that appear on both menus. The secret ingredient in the "special" fried rice ($7.95 at lunch, $8.50 at dinner) is a delightful Vietnamese sausage, small, firm slices of pork links uniquely flavored both sweet and clove-spicy. "I can't explain it to you in English," our waitress said, shrugging. "It's just special Vietnamese spices." We began digging past the plentiful bits of chicken, pork and even the shrimp to excavate every last circlet of that sausage. The stir-fry vegetables ($6.95 lunch, $8.95 dinner), rarely my favorite anywhere, were also excellent, a buttery-tasting tumble of crisp green snow peas, bok choy, slivers of red bell pepper and onions, and delicate nuggets of enoki mushrooms. (Philistine that I am, I simply ignored the quartered pancake of tofu that topped it.)
A variety of lettuce wraps are on the menu for lunch, but at dinner Dalat adds some intriguing rice paper wraps. We tried the steak and shrimp wrap set ($16.95) and were amused to receive a sizzling metal platterful of marinated and grilled flank steak, grilled shrimp and onions in other words, a stunt double for Tex-Mex fajitas, right down to a pile of rice papers posing as tortillas. It was even more entertaining to watch one of my fumble-fingered friends struggle to wrap the delicate rice paper around the meats; the tissue-thin material had an unfortunate tendency to rupture midway between the plate and his mouth. "I just need more practice with this stuff," he muttered, bandaging another burst roll.
I watched smugly, because I'd snagged Dalat's star dinner entrée, a showboat combination of roast duck and green papaya ($16.95). This dish is the kind of kitchen genius I live for, all the better because it was unexpected: Thick chunks of duck meat with irresistibly crisp, ruby-red skin surround a springy bed of slivered carrots, papaya and Spanish onions. The meat is rich, dark and moist, and spectacularly offset by the tangy, bright combination of vegetable and fruit. The papaya is tart, unripe-green of course, tempered by the sweetness of the carrots and sparked by the sharpness of the purple onion. There's also a hint of licorice in the mix, whether from star anise or fennel, I'm still not sure. Dressed lightly with rice vinegar and just a sprinkle of nam pla, the net result is nothing less than symphonic. More nerve and muscle like this would elevate Dalat's profile from pleasant to noteworthy, I'm convinced.
It's good that the dessert menu is the same night and day, because no diner should leave without sampling the house special sweets. My difficulty is deciding whether I like the fried bananas ($5.50) more than the fried apples ($5.50). Both fruits are lightly battered in a sweet tempura, fried and served molten hot, arranged around a dish of vanilla ice cream nicely speckled with black bits of vanilla bean. ("We get that from Amy's Ice Cream," our waitress whispered.) The bananas are so sweet and rich, but the apples -- Golden Delicious, I'd guess, from the taste and the bits of sunny peel peeking from the batter -- are subtly tart and satisfying. To declare a winner, I think I'll need another serving. Or two
Dalat Vietnamese Bistro, 3241 Southwest Freeway, (713)669-9375.
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