Gaga for Pho Ga
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.
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."
While I wasn't inclined to take offense at the silverware situation, it did raise an interesting discussion over our lunch: At what point will Houstonians finally admit — en masse — that Vietnamese food is now no more of a novelty ethnic food here than Tex-Mex is? When telling a friend visiting from Indiana recently where to eat in Houston, my suggestion was this: "You have to eat the four basic food groups while you're here: burgers, barbecue, Tex-Mex and Vietnamese."
He countered, "Vietnamese isn't Texan." Maybe not Texan, I agreed, but I would argue that pho and banh mi have been absorbed fully and holistically into the heart of Houston's cuisine over the last 20 years.
That said, it's a little surprising that Pho Ga Dakao is the only restaurant in town that caters to the ravenous hordes of pho ga lovers that flock to the restaurant like people making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Chicken Soup. Pho ga has been steadily regaining its popularity over the years, previously only an afterthought to its more well-known sister soup, pho bo (beef pho). The pho ga at Pho Ga Dakao is a shining example of why it's becoming popular again: a rich, chicken-saturated broth that's both fatty and cleanly herbaceous at the same time, filled with all the best parts of the chicken: hearts, tripe, gizzards, livers and — as my friend Dr. Ricky pointed out one day — "the immature eggs found inside the slaughtered hen." I thought, incorrectly, that they were hard-boiled egg yolks. "Quite a delicacy," Ricky said.
"I love how green-tasting the broth is," muttered Witt as she spent a few minutes enjoying her undoctored bowl of "Dakao chicken rice noodle soup special," as the menu calls the pho ga with everything. "You can really taste the fresh herbs." And then, after the appreciation period had passed, in went dashes of hot sauce, squeezes of lime and all the other little individualized doctoring routines that pho lovers establish over the years. The bowl was gone in no time.
Looking at her enjoying her bowl across the table, I was a little sad that I'd branched out and ordered the Dakao chicken rice special. It was good — and I was brought three huge plates of food for only $6.95, including a chicken liver-and-cabbage-based salad dressed with ginger, lime and crushed peanuts that I could have happily eaten as a main course — but the pho ga and its savory broth were too distracting. I stole bite after bite out of Witt's bowl as she just smiled at me, a sympathetic look of understanding on her face.
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