By Clare Myers
Last week’s cold snap might have come as a surprise, but that does not mean it has to be an unpleasant one. As someone who has called Florida home for several years now, I sympathize with those of you who panicked at the first sight of a sub-40 degree temperature reading. But the way I see it, the recent icy blast has been an important reminder of two things: first, it is November. With a forecast of sunny and 85, it can be difficult to keep in mind that the holiday season is upon us. Besides, now you can actually enjoy that hot pumpkin spice latte without breaking a sweat between Starbucks and your car.
Second, the icy blast reminded me of that part of the culinary world that I had largely ignored since last March: cold weather comfort food. And for me, there is no better remedy for shivers and chattering teeth than soup and stew. Craving something to keep us warm, a friend and I ventured out for pho.
Pho Empire is a generously-sized restaurant with typical vaguely Oriental décor sprinkled throughout. We were seated immediately and promptly taken care of by an attentive waitress with an air of professionalism.
The menu at Pho Empire was extensive, with the expected long list of pho bowls ($6.50 for a regular bowl, $7.50 for large, $8.50 for extra large) and vermicelli plates ($6.60-$8.95) along with an array of meat and rice combinations ($5.45-$8.95). I was intrigued by the extensive selection of unfamiliar drinks and shakes ($1.99-$3.55) — everything from “Salty Plum Drink” to “Ché Tråi Cåy,” a jackfruit, longan, palm seed, red tapioca and green jelly concoction in coconut milk, served over ice. There is also a varied appetizer list. I chose an order of fresh spring rolls ($2.75), which were brought out quickly. The plump rolls themselves, stuffed with vermicelli, shrimp and pork, were not particularly flavorful, but they served as a perfect vehicle for the various sauces. In addition to the two of the trendy sriracha, the sweet-and-spicy hoisin and the two hot sauces on the table, our waitress brought us a dense peanut sauce for dipping. It was the clear favorite.
But for me, the pho was the main attraction. I opted for a bowl with the traditional beef flank and an added Texas twist: brisket. My friend ordered a bowl with meatballs. The pho was brought out so quickly that we had not even finished our spring rolls yet when they arrived.
At first bite, the steaming bowl was just what I wanted on a cold evening. The beef broth was deliciously rich, and the beef flank was tender. The brisket, however, was much too well done, and the meatballs in my friend’s bowl were only so-so. They did not pick up enough of the savory broth, as the beef flank did. Nonetheless, that was a small flaw in an otherwise satisfying dish. Our regular-sized pho bowls were filling and packed with vermicelli rice noodles, which we ate with forks graciously provided by our waitress after we surrendered the chopstick struggle.
As is customary with pho, the bowls were accompanied by a plate of toppings: sprouts, jalapeños, leaves and limes. The sprouts gave the soup a nice crunch, and the limes added a citrusy pop to its rich, beefy flavor.
The dish is at its best when first delivered to the table. The heat brings out the depth in the savory pho, and this full-bodied flavor diminishes somewhat as it cools. This was not the finest pho I have ever had, but it was quite good.
Nearest DART station: Northlake College Station
Distance from UD: 4.8 miles
How to get there from UD: Take the Orange Line toward DFW Airport station for three stops (Northlake College). Take the 501 bus toward Downtown Irving/Heritage Crossing Station for 16 stops (about 9 minutes). Get off at Beltline @ Northgate.