WonderPho, 2747 S Hulen St, FW. 817-720-7721. 10:30am-8pm Sun., 10:30am-9pm Tue-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
It’s always an added bonus when a restaurant’s name is also a cute play on words. And so it was with a wry chuckle that I entered eight-month-old WonderPho, hoping to find its offerings as “wonderful” as its punning name promised.
I was not disappointed.
WonderPho’s specialties are actually spelled out in its subtitle: Noodles and Spring Roll Bar. And judging by the generous –– nine, by my count –– number of spring roll offerings, and 13 noodle-centric soups (pho), along with variations on noodle preparations, I was determined to test the kitchen on its two advertised areas of expertise.
That was a bit of a challenge, as so many temptations abound on WonderPho’s two-page menu – from pot stickers, torpedo shrimp, and two kinds of egg rolls to rice plates built around such proteins as beef, pork, chicken, and salmon.
Between sips of comforting jasmine tea, I made my way to the kitchen’s fresh spring rolls. The four squat, crunchy chicken cylinders set the ingredient tone for the subsequent rolls: Bulging the seams of the spring rolls were variations of percussive crunch from lettuce and cucumber and with the occasional addition of shallots and creamy avocado –– all encased in a crackling envelope of rice paper as thin as a butterfly’s wing.
The grilled chicken roll, paired with a luscious peanut-based sauce, was driven by generous amounts of creamy peanut butter blended with the deeply sweet and salty flavors of hoisin and studded with peanut bits.
With the addition of a crunchy stick (from the outer fried coating of a standard egg roll) hugging the meaty chunks in the glazed pork spring rolls, the grilled meat beat out other ingredients for crunchy supremacy. The appetizer was perfectly suited for dipping in its accompanying sweet and sour sauce redolent of salty fish sauce and sugar.
The final in my spring roll trio featured grilled shrimp. It was my first encounter with WonderPho’s exceptional treatment of shrimp. Even though the shellfish might be bathed in a sauce, they retained an inherent firmness, steering clear of unwanted rubberiness.
Desiring the most protein bang for my buck, I went for “customizing” my pho with brisket, shrimp, and chicken bobbing on its surface. Those meat and fish add-ons, tangled in a net of rice noodles, quickly ceded the spotlight to the mesmerizing star of this soup cauldron: the broth. The product of eight to 12 hours of slow simmering of beef bones and brisket, this broth, also incorporating green and sweet purple onion and bright cilantro, transformed into a vivid, cure-all for just about any ailment – imagined or real.
The beguiling aspect of this pho was how D.I.Y. it was. With a splash of earthy hoisin here, a dash of fiery Sriracha there, plus the classic accoutrements of bean sprouts and basil leaves, and the spiky heat of sliced jalapeños, all brightened by a spritz of lime, the pho took on all the complexity and drama of a samurai saga.
While all the noodle dishes seemed equally tempting, I was more intrigued by the Japanese udon variety. How would those narrow cylinders hold their own in a bath of brown liquid and among a flotilla of vegetables and healthy chunks of chicken, top-round steak, and shrimp?
Well, those udon noodles showed no trouble retaining the desired al dente texture as they intermingled with crunchy carrots, Napa cabbage, broccoli, and onion slices –– while being gently coated (no wallowing here) in a classic brown elixir whose precise ingredients (toasted soy and oyster sauces) were guarded more closely than nuclear launch codes.
Sorely disappointed that I could not finish my authentic Vietnamese meal with the classic tapioca-based dessert mochi, I lowered my expectations and sipped on a surprisingly smooth and cold milk-refreshing Thai tea.
Leaving WonderPho, it occurred to me that nothing about its consciously austere interior –– not the slatted wood walls, lazily rotating ceiling fans, generic brown tables, and certainly not the three muted TVs –– was meant to distract a patron from the authentic Vietnamese flavors dancing across the restaurant’s plain white plates.
And then I was reminded of WonderPho’s ultimate M.O.: Serve highly accomplished, true-to-roots Asian food and serve it seriously but with a dash of cheeky humor – just like the “Have a WonderPho Day!!!” exuberant slogan on the t-shirts the restaurant plans to market soon.
If they carry a large, I’ll definitely pick one up – after finishing my pho, of course.
Grilled shrimp spring rolls $4.95
Crunchy chicken spring rolls $4.95
Glazed pork spring rolls $4.95
Customize Pho $9.95
Udon noodles $11.95
Thai tea $3.75