"Excuse me. Are there no menus in Vietnamese?" The question came from a middle-aged Vietnamese woman seated in a booth at Pho & Crab, the new pho restaurant on Memorial Dr. just west of Dairy Ashford that opened a little over a month ago. The waiter, also Vietnamese, shook his head. "Just English."
Pho & Crab
14741 Memorial Dr.
The woman and her two friends, both a bit older, expressed consternation. They squinted back down at the menus, scanning for something they weren't finding. A favorite dish, maybe? It was hard to tell from my seat across the dining room, and by now the trio had launched into animated conversation in Vietnamese, pointing at the plastic menus and flapping them in each others' faces. Finally, the threesome approached what would be the last straw.
Flagging down the waiter again, they asked him a question in Vietnamese. He shook his head again, and the women tossed down their menus in unison and stood to leave. As the last woman walked out the door, she muttered: "No beef tripe! No beef tripe in anything!" It was the first time I'd ever witnessed Vietnamese customers leaving a Vietnamese restaurant in Houston because it wasn't Vietnamese enough.
Unlike other cuisines—say Italian or Chinese, for example—that arrived here from across the oceans, Vietnamese food was never Americanized from the moment it arrived on our soil four-odd decades ago. Vietnamese food in Houston, at least, was cooked by and for Vietnamese immigrants who didn't have the same trouble finding the ingredients as Italian or Chinese immigrants did upon arriving in the States a century earlier.
It's only recently that Vietnamese food has become thoroughly Americanized—that it's become the adopted cuisine of cheerful non-Viet folks across Houston, who dig into bowls of pho as eagerly as they do barbecued briskets and plates of enchiladas. And as these non-Vietnamese patrons adopt a more Eastern palate, so too have some of our restaurants adopted a more Western aesthetic. Fittingly, Pho & Crab is owned by Ba Ky, purveyor of many of Houston's more Americanized Viet joints over the years such as Pho Tau Bay and Vietopia.
To be fair to the trio of ruffled women, Pho & Crab had Andrea Bocelli playing on the stereo and How to Train Your Dragon playing on the flat-screen TVs. The menu is a mishmash of popular Vietnamese dishes such as pho tai and com thit nuong, but you'll also find such jarring choices as kung pao chicken, pad thai, and vegan fried rice (perish the thought). You can't get soda chanh here, but you can get Charles Shaw wine. You won't find banh cuon, but you'll find lemongrass chicken lettuce wraps. And you certainly won't see any fish sauce jumbled in with the bottles of Sriracha and soy sauce on each table—nor even a little dish of nuoc mam delivered with your meal. You can't say Pho & Crab isn't playing to its Memorial audience.
But I hadn't come there to judge Pho & Crab's menu; I'd come for the crab pho, following in that grand old Vietnamese dining tradition of ordering exactly what's in the restaurant's name to ensure happiness and success. Happiness and success ensued over a $14 bowl of crab pho.
Unlike a beef-based pho, the broth in my seafood-filled pho cua tom (cua meaning crab and tom meaning shrimp) was absent any warm and dusky nutmeg, cinnamon, or clove notes. Instead, the broth was bright with flavors of ginger, lemongrass, and garlic. Oddly, for a pho filled with a briny mix of scallops, shrimp, and whole crab claws, I wished it was saltier and contemplated again the odd lack of fish sauce. Perhaps those ladies weren't too far off in their assessment.
Still, it was hard to fault the generous amount of plump shrimp and cracked crab legs and claws floating in the broth, as clear and shimmery as a delicate consommé. I noted with approval, too, the banh pho (the flat rice noodles in pho) spun easily away from each other like silk strands instead of globbing up in a sticky ball, as so often happens in lesser pho joints. I wasn't as impressed with the scallops, but they were so easily overshadowed by the sweet crab it was hardly their fault.
Pho & Crab serves an assortment of crab—not just in its signature pho dish—but only after 3 p.m. each day. It was still lunchtime when I visited over the weekend, and I hadn't brought any friends, which I'd surely need to tackle the Alaskan king crab ($39), the snow crabs ($30), or the Dungeness crabs ($32)—all of which come at least 1 1/2 pounds to a serving, and in your choice of tamarind sauce or roasted garlic butter. There's even a soft-shell crab option for $20.
I can't say whether the Vietnamese troika would approve, but judging by the long lines at hybrid Vietnamese-American joints like LA Crawfish, where patrons slurp up crawfish pho and tear into mounds of snow crab claws along vast stretches of plastic-covered picnic tables, I'd say Pho & Crab wouldn't care anyway.