Here’s the bad news about Bamboo Pho & Spring Rolls, the Vietnamese eatery just north of I-20 in Arlington: The service was spotty on a recent Saturday afternoon. The place seemed understaffed for a moderately sized weekend crowd. Napkins and utensils were forgotten, the food took a long time, and you practically had to tackle a server to get noticed. The good news, though, is that the restaurant made up for an off day of service with consistently fresh, tasty, and thoughtful Southeast Asian fare.
The spicy baby-clam dip seemed an intriguing starter. Sort of a simple seafood goulash –– the base was neither cheese nor cream –– the dip wasn’t especially spicy, but it was still marvelous: a mess of succulent chopped baby clam meat mixed with mild hot peppers, small whole mint and basil leaves, little pieces of onion, and sprigs of bright green, spiky cilantro.
The spring rolls were next. With 15 different specialty rolls on the menu, Bamboo Pho is clearly trying to establish itself as an Arlington spring roll mecca. These babies are big, each roughly the size of a small banana. The grilled pork roll was standard and very tasty: nice lean chunks of savory meat mixed with romaine lettuce shreds, cool mint leaves, cilantro sprigs, and rice vermicelli noodles, all stuffed in sticky, silky rice paper. The duck mango roll had a long, tender slice of meaty, non-sweet golden mango and moist shreds of bird. The divergent flavors complemented each other nicely. The signature bamboo roll included small pieces of shrimp and smoked salmon with little chunks of pineapple. For a signature roll, it should’ve had more flavor –– the pineapple was bland and un-fruity –– but it was light, fresh, and worked well dipped in the side of nom cuoc, the thin reddish fish sauce full of heavenly lemon grass and pepper seed and not a trace of fishiness.
Bamboo offers beef, chicken, pork, duck, and tofu pho. The duck with egg noodles was stellar. A drumstick and partial duck breast were generously loaded with oily dark meat; the skin outside was a nice combo of crispy and fatty. There was no gaminess at all in this bird. It rested in a steaming, poultry-based broth that was terrific, loaded with fiery raw jalapeño slices, crunchy bean sprouts, and a plump green wedge of lime squeezed in. If there was a complaint, it was too many hearty ramen-style egg noodles and not enough broth, so if you’re an avid pho sipper, request fewer noodles.
Those thin wavy ramen noodles turned up again in the restaurant’s combination lo mein. They weren’t bad, mixed with a light, mildly spicy brown sauce and tossed with non-fatty pieces of chicken, beef, and pork and crispy broccoli florets. But if you expect the kind of comfort food experience provided by thick Chinese-style wheat flour noodles, this lo mein might be a bit of a disappointment. The sugarcane shrimp and grilled pork with vermicelli, on the other hand, was a knockout noodle dish. The thick strips of pig had a sharp roasted flavor that didn’t overpower the narrow pieces of shrimp paste cake, which had the consistency of tofu; the pork and shrimp cake mixed well with a couple of fibrous, mildly sweet sticks of sugarcane and a tangle of rice noodles. Technically, you’re probably not supposed to eat the sugar cane, but Bamboo Pho & Spring Rolls combines flavors and textures so delightfully, you might not mind being a little uncouth.
Bamboo Pho & Spring Rolls
3330 Matlock Rd, Ste 102, Arlington. 817-465-5746. 11am-10pm Sun-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri-Sat.
Duck mango roll …………………………………………. $4
Bamboo signature roll …………………………………. $5
Grilled pork roll …………………………………………… $3
Sugarcane shrimp and grilled pork vermicelli …. $8