Nobi Public House: A Very, Very, Very Fine House
'You can get an egg on anything!" I told my seven-year-old daughter while perusing the menu at Nobi Public House. She's a picky eater and altogether in favor of the current Portlandia-perfect food fetishization of the egg. She inquired, as she has been known to do, about egg-topped eggs with a side of eggs, but was steered instead toward the right-hand side of the menu, full of noodle and rice dishes, which promise of an egg-adder sweetening an already tempting pot. It seemed as if the culinary minds behind Nobi had custom-built their pub grub with her palate in mind, and that made our late lunch in a strip mall off NASA Road 1 all the more pleasant.
It was a little after 4:30 p.m. on a Monday, and Nobi was a bit noisy despite the thin crowd. A small room full of hard surfaces will do that, I suppose, but the levels can get a bit much as the place fills up. At that hour, it was just enough to allay our fears of potential disruption, the chatter and iPhone-gaming buzz of our kids lost in the wash of other conversations.
A "public house" denotes something more than a place to grab a quick pint. If you care to read the lengthy entry on the subject in The Oxford Companion to Beer, you'll find the phrase full of its own history, distinct from alehouses (the public house's progenitor) and other mean drinkeries. A home away from home; a place to gather with friends and neighbors; a place to discuss the events of the day, the week, the world. It's a place for community and conversation, both of which, at Nobi, revolve around beer. 40 taps' worth, including a nitro tap and a cask engine, and enough bottled options to fill a multipage spread.
Even at that early hour, the bar was peopled with obvious regulars, everything but a hearty "Norm!" indicating fondness and familiarity as each of them took his or her plush leather seat at the bar. Conversations drifted our way, one about the distinctions between West Coast and any other form of IPA, another about the seemingly endless progression of local breweries opening in recent months and years, and what that portends for Texas craft beer. A few weeks before our first visit, local beer activist group Open The Taps had been out at Nobi, raising funds and awareness (and no doubt a pint or two) of the quintet of craft beer bills (SB 515-518 and 639) that recently passed the Texas House and Senate. It's that kind of place.
It's not, however, a great Vietnamese restaurant. Not that it's trying to be.
Pretty consistently, the "pub" food at Nobi is best when left to its "grub" devices. Take the Butter Garlic Wings, simple and meaty affairs with pleasantly crispy skin and a glaze you'll want to lick from your fingers. Or a plate of Pork Fries — an ungainly sounding but immediately gratifying mélange of most likely frozen potatoes (their skins still a bit wan), Vietnamese chargrilled pork, nacho cheese, onions, pickled jalapeño and salsa — which came as a right and ready sponge for a pint of Yellow Rose, a lovely and fragrant IPA from Magnolia-based Lone Pint Brewery. With a nose full of guava and a wonderful punch of citrus flavor, it was delicious and refreshing between jagged forkfuls of fries. The plate was clean within minutes; even the picky kid shouldered in for her share of pork and potatoes.
Those fries are an "off-the-menu" item, along with a handful of other dishes, such as the Nobi Dog we had on another night, during a more adult 8 p.m. visit that found Nobi busy but not so packed that we failed to find a quick seat nor so hectic as to make a mess of the thoughtful full-service setup. I found the dog a bit busy, its panoply of toppings (everything from chargrilled pork to sriracha mayo and shredded carrots) providing no real sense of identity, and all leaning a bit sweet. Everyone else at the table loved it. It was a late addition, brought out swiftly by an incredulous waiter to our already food-laden table. He also dealt handily with a few "bartender's choice" requests, despite the fact that one came from a confessed Bud Light drinker, albeit one who promised an open mind and a willing palate.
I've seen fear and hesitation in the eyes of some bartenders when they're faced with the prospect of selecting a drink for an unknown guest, an endeavor rife with potential disappointment, but ours handled it with aplomb. A snifter of the aforementioned Yellow Rose for the macro-drinker and a pint of Karbach Weisse Versa to meet the request for "nothing too girly," and both of the indecisive drinkers were decisively pleased.
We were all pleased with the decision to order the nachos, a pile of house-made, freshly fried flour tortilla triangles topped with the same messy amalgam of Viet-stadium ingredients as the Pork Fries, and equally enjoyable. If anything, the satisfying crunch of the chips proved a better vehicle for the messy jumble of trimmings, and the pile disappeared in large, stop-motion swaths.
If you want to test Nobi's bánh mì mettle, keep your fingers crossed. My first visit found its namesake baguette dense and chewy, like a grocery store specimen, without any of the airy crumb and crackling crust of the genuine article. It made me wonder if the choice to forgo the normal labeling, listing the several options (chargrilled chicken or pork, tofu, egg, fried shrimp) simply as "Sandwiches," was intentional, a nod to the fact that, while the inspiration is a bánh mì, the sandwich isn't quite. I'm glad I gave them another go, because the subsequent version found the bread much improved, though its fried shrimp were a bit lost in the mix. You'll want the fried egg topper, regardless, as the sandwich can be a bit dry and benefits from the lubrication. Be sure to specify over easy.
Here I must quibble a bit. Those eggs, available on most menu items for a nominal charge, frequently come overcooked. I wanted the yolk to break, flowing with golden promise into the crevices of the fried rice siding my order of Shaking Beef, but was met firm disappointment. The rice was fine, more steamed rice blown over with a bit of wok hei than what you might be expecting, but I'd ordered the egg for a reason. Likewise, it would have added a needed dose of richness to the under-browned cubes of beef themselves. I'd probably skip the Shaking Beef in the future, and the fried rice is no more exciting as a main portion. You can get that with chargrilled pork or chicken, tofu, shrimp or a combination of the meat offerings. The combo's what we got, and it was serviceable.
Wok hei, the "breath of the wok," is that subtly smoky flavor that frequently accompanies wok-cooked foods, formed (partly) from vaporized cooking oil as the ingredients are tossed over extremely high heat, and it's an important element in the stir-fried noodle dishes here. Get the combination — chicken, pork and shrimp — and enjoy the toothy bite of the slightly crimpy noodles. The toppings are plentiful, though they begin to feel repetitive across the menu, and the dish is satisfying and simple.
Vermicelli bowls round out the noodle offerings, again with your choice of those now familiar protein options, but are lesser dishes by far. Even doused liberally with nuóc châm, the dish came across as bland. Far better, and much more unexpected, was the salad. I'd goaded my wife into ordering it, citing professional obligation, and then had to fight her for bites. A salad in name only, it's really just a heap of delightfully chewy chargrilled pork (or chicken, etc.), tossed with a chipotle-laced dressing and deposited, still warm, on a bed of rough-chopped iceberg lettuce. Dotted with tomatoes, half-moons of cucumber and slivers of red onion, it's a riot of flavors and textures, spots of contrasting temperature adding another dimension to the dish. Everything works as it should, the iceberg a fresh and coolly crunchy contrast to the firm and savory meat, the onions adding bursts of pungency. I'd order that again in a heartbeat.
Likewise the wonton soup, another surprise item on the menu. With its mild, buttery broth, inflected with a liberal dose of black pepper, it's a rustic and perfect backdrop for the same crimpy noodles that appear elsewhere in stir-fried form. They're a bit reminiscent of packaged ramen but with a richer, slightly eggy flavor and a much more refined texture. The wontons — I counted at least five, divvied up among my kids with one for me — were tender and meaty and just big enough for a mouthful. Suitably simple, they tasted like pork and garlic, with maybe a bit of ginger peeking through here and there. At $3 for a cup, that would make a meal; it's a steal I'd return for at lunch, were Nobi a bit closer to my office.
As it is, I can't see coming to Nobi much outside of drinking hours, which is just fine by me. You may want to extend the definition of "drinking hours" to a long and liquid lunch, and if you do you'll find a quieter Nobi. Lest the trappings of table service and a full menu fool you, though, Nobi is certainly more bar than restaurant. The tables are a bit cramped when loaded with much more than a few plates of fries or nachos, the menu ends up a slightly repetitive rehashing of ingredients in varied formats, and few of the dishes stand well enough on their own to warrant a visit. That doesn't mean Nobi isn't worth a visit. It most assuredly is.
You'll go, though, to drink good beer around people who want to do the same. You'll go, maybe, to strike up a conversation about some of the newest breweries to hit Texas taps, many of which found early footholds at Nobi. I missed out on Southern Tier Crème Brûlée and Pumking by a few weeks, and have spent every Thursday since scanning Nobi's Facebook page for the newest tapping. When something exciting pops up, you'll go to snag a growler to enjoy at home. If you're part of the craft beer community, you'll go because Nobi is, too. I, for one, am glad to welcome it to the neighborhood.
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