Restaurant Reviews

Simply Pho Is More Than Its Name Suggests

Get a behind the scenes look at Simply Pho by checking out our slideshow.

The name of the restaurant is completely misleading, as I discovered during my first meal there.

I was seated at one of the two dozen four-tops scattered throughout the spacious dining room and was handed a menu seven pages long. I found appetizers, banh mi, rice plates, fried rice, noodle plates, noodle soups, smoothies, vegetarian dishes and, finally, a section for pho, featuring 19 different varieties of the traditional Vietnamese soup. Nineteen out of more than 100 items. So no, it is not, as the name implies, Simply Pho. It's so much more.

I know less than I should about Vietnamese food, so I recruited my friend Minh to join me and help decipher the restaurant's menu. Though it's helpfully translated into English, it features a lot of dishes that seem to be permutations on a theme. How to know which is the best or most interesting, or the most likely to satisfy?

Minh chatted with the waitress for a few minutes in the percussive, sing-song tones of their native language — though, he admitted to me, his Vietnamese is rusty — and in less than five minutes an alluring bowl of mi quang appeared before us. At first glance I had no idea what it was. There were black sesame crisps floating atop a mound of noodles so yellow they were almost approaching fluorescent. Bright pink and red shrimp poked out from beneath coarsely ground peanuts, contrasting with the fresh sprigs of grass-green cilantro and water mint nestled around the edges of the bowl. Once we started digging deeper, we found ruddy chunks of pork — so tender that we could pull them apart with our fingers — and a thin, dark-brown broth flavored with fish sauce and meat juices.

It required a feat of chopstick dexterity to gather every element in the bowl into a single bite, but when achieved, the resulting flavor combinations were something I'd never before experienced. Turmeric, lemon, garlic, mint, peanuts, basil, cilantro...so many characters working in harmony in this simple, classic Vietnamese dish.

In researching the cuisine, I came across a couplet that's often repeated in discussions of mi quang:

"Thuong nhau muc bat che xanh,

Lam to mi Quang anh xoi cho cung"

The poem tells the story a young girl who says she can prove the depth of her love for her mate with a cup of che xanh (green tea) and a bowl of mi quang. In short — when you love someone, show it with mi quang.

At the risk of sounding overly saccharine and sentimental, I think I get it. What better way to explain the intensity of your love than with such depth of flavor?
_____________________

My first attempt at ordering at Simply Pho resembled a comedy of errors.

"I'll have the 'chaw geo,' please." I was trying to pronounce cha gio and clearly failing.

"What?"

"The 'chaw geo'...Oh. I mean the A1. Guess my pronunciation is pretty bad, huh?"

"Okay."

"And a durian smoothie."

"Durian?"

"Yes, please."

"You sure?" The waitress made a face, looking as if she had just tasted something disgusting.

"Um...yes...thanks."

As soon as the server walked away from the table, my friends erupted in a fit of laughter. We all knew about the reputation of durian — the popular southeast Asian tree fruit whose smell is so pungent and repugnant it has been banned from hotels, airports and other means of public transportation in Singapore and a few other countries. Andrew Zimmern, host of the TV show Bizarre Foods, on which he eats anything and everything, refuses to eat durian.

Fortunately, once the smoothie aptly described as "pig shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock" (thanks for putting that taste into words, Richard Sterling) arrived, there were already other items on the table to mask the unfortunate taste and smell of the durian drink. I never finished it.

The dishes arrived rapid-fire, one right after the other, with no differentiation between appetizers, small plates and main dishes. As soon as something came out of the kitchen, it was brought to us. Somehow, without even trying, we ended up with a table full of everything but pho.

As we dined on crispy spring rolls and soft spring rolls, vermicelli noodles and stir-fried noodles, banh mi sandwiches and com dia rice plates, we watched the people behind the long faux-granite counter and back in the kitchen...not really working. They were whispering to each other, then laughing uproariously or pretending to fight with chopsticks while placing them on tables. One young man strolled around idly with an ice cream cone in one hand, unsure of what to do or where to help, while my friends and I fiddled with our empty water glasses. The employees appear to be mostly teenagers who, while friendly and engaging, probably have more interesting things to do than wait tables at the family restaurant.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kaitlin Steinberg