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Courtesy California Pho & Grill's Facebook
Courtesy California Pho & Grill's Facebook

On a recent Sunday afternoon visit to Arlington’s California Pho & Grill — just north of the super-busy Parks Mall complex — we were surprised by what we found: a hip, minimalist, dark wood and sherbet-colored dining room packed with families with small children. Vietnamese, Thai, and Anglo diners were all happily chatting as they dug into co-owner Jaclyn Lam’s superb pan-Asian menu, which includes traditional and surprising Viet, Thai, and Chinese dishes conscientiously prepared.

The first appetizer was the pork summer rolls: fat, sticky rice-paper logs stuffed with thin vermicelli rice noodles, lettuce, spiky cilantro sprigs, and long slivers of lean, tender pork that had been marinated in nam cuoc, the Vietnamese fish sauce that gave every bite an unexpected but welcome seafood quality.

Next up was the softshell crab, which arrived on a bed of lettuce and chopped chives. The crab had been breaded and deep-fried. While the dish was a bit on the greasy side, it was utterly addictive and piping hot, especially the white, flaky crabmeat at the center.

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The Vietnamese chicken salad would make a wonderful summer dish, full as it was with light, cool flavors and textures. Long strips of steamed white meat had been tossed with mint leaves, crisp thin carrot slices, crunchy crumbles of peanut, and hearty cabbage shreds, all of it mixed with what tasted like a fish sauce-lemon vinaigrette dressing. It was a perfect combo of comfort food and health-conscious fare.

The beef pad see eew was a delicious flat noodle dish with hot, thick rice pasta folds that gave it the down-home quality of an American Southern noodle casserole. The heavenly noodles had been stir-fried with plump scraps of scrambled egg, crisp florets of fresh broccoli, pleasantly bitter bok choi leaves, and thick slices of lean, juicy beef. A combination of pepper spices lit a small happy fire on the tongue.

The only real disappointment was the crisp chicken green curry. The menu described the dish as having “a crispy chicken breast.” That turned out to be small oval pieces of breaded, deep-fried white meat, a recipe that’s popularly known as “popcorn chicken.” It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t what was expected. The green curry sauce was terrific: rich and thick, with tender length-wise slices of fresh zucchini and thick, crisp carrot slices. (We had ordered the curry medium-hot, and the resulting spice level would be fiery by many people’s standards.) If you’re prepared for it, this green curry dish would probably work just fine. And in a way, those pieces of popcorn chicken in traditional Thai sauce fit the vibe of California Pho & Grill perfectly –– friendly and exotic, casual yet imaginatively composed.

 

 

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California Pho & Grill

3700 S Cooper St, Arlington. 817-465-2888.

11am-10pm Sun-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri-Sat.

Softshell crab…………………………………………….. $9.95

Vietnamese chicken salad……………………………. $7.95

Beef pad see eew……………………………………….. $9.95

Crispy chicken green curry………………………… $10.95

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