Approaching from the west, the prominent signage of the one month old Pho & Crab Restaurant is easy to spot. The letters are in bold, the sign's black background pops, and, despite the neon brightness of the Ninfa's sign behind it (its neighbor), the words Pho & Crab Restaurant Vietnamese Cuisine stand out.
That's definitely going to be one of the restaurant's advantages. The fact that it's probably the only Vietnamese restaurant in the near vicinity of Memorial Drive and Dairy Ashford is another. If it's aiming to become the neighborhood Vietnamese hotspot, it's got a good chance, a fact that was underscored during a late Sunday evening visit, when the restaurant was lightly occupied by tables of different age groups and ethnicities.
Like most Vietnamese restaurants, the menu is fairly large, encompassing way more than just pho and crab (there are appetizers, rice plates, rice vermicelli dishes, wok entrees and curries), though it's probably a safe bet to start with those two dishes. We made sure to order both of these, getting a bowl of the "singed beef" pho on the recommendation of Andrew Tran, the general manager. We also ordered the tamarind dungeness crab (they also offer the king crab and soft shell crab, as well a salt and pepper flavor in lieu of the tamarind), a Vietnamese delicacy that is hard to master.
Wanting to try a few more things from the menu, we also ordered the house special mussels from the appetizer portion of the menu, as well as the Flaming Beef Flambe (we'll get to the name later).
The restaurant is well appointed with dark wood tables, leather upholstered mustard-colored chairs, brick colored walls, flat screen TV's, and large format art of varying themes (large acrylic floral paintings, large posters of fisherman, acrylic paintings of Italian scenery, and a Mondrian-esque colored lightbox). A bar area just to the right the host stand greets you upon entering the premises, but is as-yet unused.
There were highs and lows to our meal, nothing that can't be corrected -- just a couple of dishes that came out too sweet to be taken seriously. The first was our order of mussels, which arrived accompanied by a delectable fragrance of lemongrass, coconut and butter. It looked great, too, the portion generous and mouthwatering, but despite the baseline flavors being on point, the sugar component was overdone, the sweetness cloying.
The second was this beautiful plate of tamarind dungeness crab. Traditional Vietnamese preparations of this dish give it a bold tamarind sweet-and-sour-and-spicy flavor. In this instance, the cook -- no doubt aiming to please the non-Vietnamese clientele -- had cut out the spicy, cut out the sour. What was left was sweet. Too sweet. "It tastes like candy," my companion said plaintively, cracking open the skin and eating just the crabmeat, instead of sucking the flavors of the tamarind off the crab shell as he would do elsewhere.
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To the restaurant's credit, the server did ask us what we thought of the dishes, telling us that he'd report our feedback to the kitchen. He said that the kitchen was worried that the clientele couldn't take stronger flavors, but we argued against this erroneous assumption. "Make it like it's supposed to be made. Give it spice, give it more tamarind, make things less sweet," we urged. Hopefully they'll incorporate this feedback to improve those two dishes, both of which might have been stellar had they not been so sweet.
The Pho Special Singed Beef was excellent, thank goodness. You could smell the aromatics as the steaming hot bowl arrived at the table, a homey, comforting smell. The broth itself was a clear light brown and very clean, displaying deep, rich flavors -- flavors that spoke of many hours of cooking to extract the essence of the beef bone into the broth (12 to be exact). The "singed beef" -- thick-cut, large rectangular pieces, that resembled thin slices of tender, fatty brisket --were melt-in-your-mouth. We were told that the meat had been seared on the grill to seal in the juices before being cooked. Whatever they did, it was delicious, well worth recommending. An added bonus were the herbs that came with it. "You can smell how fresh these herbs are," our server said proudly, "they're all organic, grown in a private garden in Sugar Land."
Also excellent -- and one of the best versions of this dish you'll find anywhere in Houston -- is the Flaming Beef Flambe, the restaurant's version of the Vietnamese stir fry dish of cubed beef known as "Bò lúc lắc." Reading the description begged the question: "Are there flames that come with this dish?"
"Yes, there are," replied the server. "You mean, you flambe the meat at the table? There is fire when you bring the dish out?" we counter-queried. "Oh no," the server assured us. "The flames happen in the kitchen, when the dish is being cooked," he explained.
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Well, there must have been flames, because the large beef chunks all displayed a nice char at the edges. Despite being cut into fairly large one-inch pieces, the meat was tender, the seasoning, though a tad sweet, balanced and tasty. The meat chunks were mixed in with diced green and red peppers, onions, mushrooms and a few cubes of firm tofu, and were served on a bed of fresh and fluffy fried rice. To the side, a small dish of soy-based dipping sauce topped with jalapenos and Thai chilis provided an added burst of flavor with each dip of the meat. Total yum.
The flashes of brilliance can be attributed to Pho & Crab's owner, known as Ba Ky, or Mrs. Ky. Now in her mid sixties, Ky was one of the early pioneers on the Houston Vietnamese restaurant scene, opening restaurants such as the original Pho Tau Bay, Ba Ky, Vietopia and Pho Ngon. Though she sold her stake in Pho Tau Bay, and Ba Ky is no more (she sold the restaurant, which later became Jasmine), her family still owns Vietopia and Pho Ngon (her sons run both places). Pho & Crab is her current baby.
It turns out that she was the one doing the cooking on the night we were there, which makes sense. The pho was really top notch. The Flaming Beef Flambe is a dish to go back for. Both dishes were authentic and good examples of what real Vietnamese food is when it's really good. If she can find a good balance for her other dishes, Pho & Crab, like the many other successful restaurants she opened before it, will be around for a long time.