Pho Real

One of the best in Houston: Eye-of-round-steak and flank pho.
Troy Fields

The mi at Pho Dung Noodle House in Hong Kong City Mall was excellent, but unfortunately my dining companion found my noodle-slurping technique so disgusting, she threatened to go shopping until I was finished. I gazed up at her to beg forgiveness, but it's difficult to look contrite with a clump of noodles hanging out of your mouth.

Mi means "egg noodles" in Vietnamese. There are only two kinds of mi on the menu at Pho Dung. I got the mi hoanh thanh (mi with wontons). It was served with a decorative fried wonton on top and lots of tender wontons floating around in the soup. It also included a couple of shrimp, some pork slices and some tender white-meat chicken, along with a nice big clump of thin yellow noodles. Of course, Pho Dung specializes in pho, but I had already sampled the beef soup on a previous visit.

Asians slurp noodles with a certain amount of decorum, but according to my frequent dining companion, I see a noodle-house visit as an excuse to stick my face in the bowl and go hog wild. Her concern wasn't limited to my bad manners – she was also miffed because I was so busy eating that I wasn't responding to her conversational prompts.

Noodles are probably not a great idea for a first date. Or a 101st date, for that matter.

Another bad date idea is to order dinner in a restaurant that only accepts cash when you don't have any money in your wallet. I found out about Pho Dung's cash-only policy when the hot, crispy imperial roll appetizers arrived. I was wrapping one in an ice-cold lettuce leaf and preparing to dunk it in the dipping sauce when the waiter went on to say that, unfortunately, the only ATM in Hong Kong City Mall was broken.

Before I left the table, got in the car and drove down Bellaire looking for an ATM, I wrapped up one more imperial roll. The hot fried egg roll and the cold lettuce were doing an inspiring duet in my mouth. I looked at the plate longingly, but I had to go get the money. As I left, I shoved one last large bite in my mouth.

It wasn't a long drive, but by the time I got back, my date had already finished her entrée, a dish of crushed rice (com) with lemongrass chicken. The broken rice kernels stuck together in a soothing starch mass that combined wonderfully with the slightly charred, tart chicken. But she thought the chicken had a rubbery texture. And once she mentioned it, I couldn't disagree.

My bowl of mi was getting cold. There was a plate of condiments beside the bowl that included the odd stalks of greens that I'd puzzled over on my previous visit to Pho Dung. This time, I wanted to find out what the stuff was.

I had already torn up the purple basil and jalapeño slices and thrown them into the soup along with the sprouts, all of which came on the condiment plate. But I was intrigued by the green with leaves that were divided into a lot of frilly tufts, sort of like carrot tops, only thicker. Waving a stalk in the air, I asked my waiter, who didn't speak a lot of English, what it was called.

"Green vegetables," he said.

I rolled my eyes and asked the lady at the next table, who was watching my exchange with amusement. It's called tong ho, according to the sign over at Hong Kong Supermarket, she said.

I stopped by the produce section of the Asian grocery store later to make sure I had the spelling right. Then I looked up "tong ho" on the Internet when I got home. Turns out it's an edible variety of chrysanthemum known as shungiku in Chinese. Some sources list the English name as chop suey greens. When was the last time you ordered chop suey?

Tong ho is a combination herb, vegetable and edible flower, according to some horticulturists. Its flavor is described by various sources as resembling that of zucchini, spinach, mint, garlic and celery. Personally, I think it tastes like chard, but I was taken with the texture, which is a little tougher than most herbs, and holds up well in hot broth.

It made for an interesting bowl of soup, and I was, perhaps, a little more intent than usual in my slurping because I was famished. And my dining companion was a little more impatient than usual, because she was already done eating and was ready to go. Both problems were caused by the emergency dash for cash, I offered by way of an excuse. But at least we didn't have to wash any dishes.

Dung means "brave" or "heroic" in Vietnamese. Pho Dung is one of the most popular noodle shops in the city. My first visit was on a Saturday morning. Every table was occupied, and there was a line of people waiting. I avoided the wait by asking a guy who was sitting alone if I could join him. We struck up a conversation. He said he was born in Vietnam and now owned a hip-hop nightclub on Richmond that was popular with lesbians. I ordered the same bowl of pho he was eating, the eye-of-round-steak and flank.

The broth was rich and beefy with an orange tint. The rice noodles were perfectly cooked, and there were lots of thin steak slices in it. The condiments served with the pho included culantro, a distant relative of cilantro with a stronger flavor, as well as jalapeños, purple basil and lemon wedges. It was one of the best bowls of pho I've had in Houston. But the atmosphere of the restaurant left a little to be desired.

The Formica tables are shoved together for maximum seating, and the busboys frequently collide with people wandering around looking for someplace to sit. The Saturday-morning crowd included many families with small children. At the table beside me was a cute little boy who had to sit on a booster to reach the table. Somewhere in the middle of my soup, the child let out a piercing, full-volume screech that resonated throughout the restaurant. Then he did it again and again and again.

There was another child in a high chair a few tables away. In reply to the screaming child, the high-chair occupant let loose a shriek of his own. And then, throughout the restaurant, infants and toddlers chimed in as if it were a sing-along. Some diners were more amused than others.

If you find Pho Dung too crowded or too loud for your tastes, you might consider the elegant Pho Danh down at the other end of Hong Kong City Mall. Danh means "fame" or "good reputation." Pho Danh is much newer than Pho Dung, and it's beautifully furnished with granite tables and stainless-steel chairs.

The other Pho Danh on Veterans Memorial Drive is often mentioned as one of the best noodle shops in Houston. So I stopped by the Hong Kong City Mall location one morning to get a bowl of pho for the sake of comparison. It was good, but the broth didn't taste quite as beefy as Pho Dung's. The decor was bright and shiny, with piped-in elevator music. Granted, that sounds better than the mob scene with screaming infants at Pho Dung, but Pho Danh was a little too slick for me. And the service was horrible.

After my order was taken and my soup was delivered, nobody visited my table again. I tried to get someone's attention to refill my water glass, but to no avail – which was annoying, because I could see four servers congregated behind the cash register at the back of the restaurant having a powwow. I finally got up and poured my own water.

These are really just quibbles. If you're a fan of pho, you owe it to yourself to try one of the well-loved versions at Hong Kong City Mall. Either pho shop will do, but I like Dung.

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Pho Dung Noodle House

11201 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072


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