Friday, June 14, 2013
Restaurant review: DaLat’s pho-losophy centers on harmonic eats and stellar drinks
And, a "that's what she said" joke.
EAST DALLAS The playful phrase painted on the side of Khanh Nguyen’s restaurant still makes him smile. His black bracelet, too – a promotional adornment in the style that a particular bicyclist once made popular – sports the same word. If you don’t properly pronounce the name of the Vietnamese dish in the phrase, it won’t make much sense.
Eat. Drink. Phở.
“If you say foe, it kind of takes away the best part,” Nguyen expounds with a grin. “It sounds like a dirty word if you say it right!”
To assume that DaLat is a typical Vietnamese spot would be to underestimate the personality and whimsy Nguyen infuses into his restaurant. Open for just more than a year now, DaLat is the combination of Nguyen’s two loves – “Pho and a bar,” he says – where each is treated with equal esteem, if not equal approaches. Nguyen, who originally hails from the Vietnamese region that shares the name of his restaurant and has for the past 10 years lived in the Fitzhugh area, noticed the need for a late-hours spot where people could still find a meal that was as carefully prepared at 1 a.m. as it would have been seven hours earlier. It’s Vietnamese food, to be sure, but in many cases it breaks the mold; unafraid to push the boundaries and stray from the expected, Nguyen brings a style to Vietnamese fare that may have the traditionalist up in arms while those less stringent likely delight in the change of pace and setting.
“I love Vietnamese food, so I try to anchor all the dishes with Vietnamese flavor. But I have a dish that’s a Vietnamese cabbage salad – we just fine chop vermicelli, cabbage, cilantro, tofu, and put a vegetarian tofu sauce on it,” he says, before dropping the bombshell. “It’s super fresh, and since it’s vegetarian we put an imitation fish sauce on it. And then we put it on top of Nacho Cheese Doritos. It’s evolutionary.” They call it Doritoviche, an homage to ceviche, whose flavor profile, Ngyuen says, is inexplicably similar to the dish of his own making.
The Vietnamese Chili is likewise a play on his native cuisine, while the sandwiches (Khanhwiches, that is) are not banh mis, but remain similar – while a sandwich with Genoa salami and peppered turkey may not seem Vietnamese, the accoutrements seem more familiar to the cuisine: Cucumbers, pickled carrots, chile peppers, and cilantro round out the handheld meals. It’s an approach to cuisine that has offended some of the more strict followers of their understood tenets regarding what Vietnamese food is and isn’t allowed to be. Nguyen isn’t deterred. Given his customers’ penchant for returning, he doesn’t need to be.
“I’m just a free thinker; I’m not limited to trying to do anything like anyone else,” he says. “I play with it, and if I like it, I’ll put it out.”
Except, that is, for the pho. The pho, Nguyen says, needs no tinkering. A laborious process whose recipe required six months of daily chopping, roasting, simmering, and tasting and requires six hours daily to make, DaLat’s pho is Nguyen’s pride.
“What I always tell the cooks when I have them first train on pho is that the beauty of pho, with all its different flavors, is when everything just locks up and it gets in this perfect sweet spot where you don’t taste any of the individual parts. It just all comes together,” he says. “They way I describe it to them is that it’s a symphony – you’re hearing a great piece; you’re not hearing all the individual instruments. Except for a small soloist: You should taste star anise just sitting slightly forward of everything else. But it should just be a hint of star anise an then a complete blend between the beef flavor, the beef fat, the garlic, the spices, and everything else.”
Served with brisket and eye of round (pork meatballs optional), DaLat’s pho isn’t the offal-heavy amalgam that many self-professed purists might claim as traditional or authentic, but Nguyen’s reasoning behind the approach is sound from both a standpoint of flavor preference and tradition.
I grew up not eating the tendon, tripe, and all that, but I think many people assume that everyone in Vietnam eats pho that way – I would say a majority of Vietnamese people do not eat it like that. It’s just an option, like anchovies on a pizza,” he says. “I’m not not providing that as a stubborn thing, and I’m not doing it just to make it palatable for the American public – though there’s nothing wrong with that, either – but it’s really not our cuisine from my family. If I added all those, I would be acquiescing and basically Americanizing it.”
If the pho is Nguyen’s pride at DaLat, the Dragon Shot is his joy. The bar takes the same approach as its kitchen, taking Vietnamese flavor profiles and pushing them to new boundaries. Jackfruit, rambutan, and lychee all play roles in the specialty cocktails that DaLat has to offer, but it is the dragon shot that brings a light to Nguyen’s eye, perhaps because of the salted, seasoned, candied prune – a treat he grew up eating – or perhaps because of the straight tequila. Regardless, his excitement about the drink is evident.
“It’s a pure, straight tequila shot, but the setup is different. It’s a prune, a small piece of it, dried, salted, and sweetened. You eat it, shoot the tequila, and then suck the lime that has been dusted with powder made from more of the candy,” he says. “I’m very exacting with this shot, because when it’s perfect, I call it my 15-30 seconds of zen in my day. There’s an incredible flavor interaction between the fruit and the tequila.”
Nguyen says he’s had sommeliers and chefs alike sings the praises of the Dragon Shot, and with his habit of taking Vietnamese flavors and taking them to unexpected boundaries, DaLat is more or less a haven for an inventive, apology-free approach to a millenia-old cuisine. Traditionalists, Nguyen says, would do well to approach it with an open mind.
“I would assume that of the 100,000 restaurants and street stalls in Vietnam serving Vietnamese food, that the Vietnamese population in Vietnam probably doesn’t want it served the exact same way at every restaurant they go to,” he says. “It would be like if you went to every hamburger joint and somebody said, ‘There’s avocado on this hamburger! There’s bacon on this one! Not authentic! One star!’ It would be crazy.”
A purist might be offended by DaLat’s intentional escape from the boundaries of the nebulous authentic, but to Nguyen, authentic too often means static, and that’s not the state he prefers, or in which he prefers his cuisine to be. Call it inauthentic or daringly inventive, it is an unarguably unique spot to find eat, drink, and pho.
Pegasus News Content partner - Entree Dallas
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