Excerpt from Newspaper reviews
by Robb Walsh, The Austin Chronicle
Although Oriental noodles behave long been an obsession of mine, I was really on a different mission entirely the day I visited Pho Cong Ly for the first time. I had braved the mayhem of Highway 183 to visit the Hong Kong Supermarket in the shopping center next to Target. Rumor had it that the Hong Kong Supermarket had a dynamite barbecue takeout plate that included ribs and duck for $2.29 (See "food-o-file" below). But the Hong Kong supermarket was only doing this deal three days a week then, and the Tuesday I visited wasn't one of them. (They've since gone to five days a week).
So there I was at 2pm, starving for lunch. Mai's Chinese Cafe and Karaoke bar was right next door and they had a huge banner on the window screaming something about a "Fresh Chinese Lunch Buffet." So I went in and checked out the old steam table. The buffet offerings were the boringly familiar Kung Pao something-or-other and too-many-times cooked pork. And they were none too fresh-looking. In Mai's defense, I have to admit that 2pm is a little late to hit a Chinese lunch buffet.
So I headed for my car. But before I could take off, the word "Pho" caught my eye. Across the parking lot was a restaurant with that Vietnamese word for noodles in its name. I put my car keys back in my pocket and went inside where I found a strangely sterile-looking noodle house.
When they handed me the menu, I had a eerie case of deja vu. It was a very unique menu, butI'd swear I'd seen it before. Could I have already reviewed this restaurant and completely forgotten I had ever been here? Is my memory, or my entire grip on reality, really that far gone?
I read every word on the menu intently looking for some clue, hoping for some glimmer of recognition that would make me feel at one with my cognitive processes again. And at last, I found it. Buried in the last sentence of the longish introduction was the magic word: "chain."
Pho Cong Ly is part of a five-restaurant chain with three storefronts in Houston and one in Arlington, plus the one where I was sitting. It all came back: Yes, I'd seen this menu before - in Houston.
The sister restaurant I had visited was on Veteran's Memorial Highway and I had taken my brother there. It was his first experience with Oriental noodles and I remembered that this menu had been particularly helpful for him, since it gave an eloquent explanation of the whole cooking process. The proprietor there had been a German gentleman who volunteered to season my brother's noodles for him. He had heaped into my brother's bowl the basil leaves, bean sprouts and jalapenos that come alongside the soup and then squirted the mess with the bright red hot sauce that they keep on the table. My brother liked his very spicy noodles so much, that he insisted on coming back the next day for the same lunch.
I remembered how the chatty menu had made the arcane world of Vietnamese noodle houses so simple. Instead of the usual weird translations and lack of descriptions, there were several paragraphs telling you how healthful and nourishing the long-cooked beef broth and hearty noodles were and advising you how to order.
The menu selections were divided into several headings including: "For Beginners, A Little Bit of Fat, and Adventurer's Choice." The "beginner's noodles" featured eye of round or meatballs with the broth and noodles. The "little bit of fat" category included eye of round plus fatty flank or bible tripe and the "adventurer's noodles" added soft tendon to the mix. A small bowl of noodles was $3.50 and a big bowl was $4. There was also a kid's noodle dish on the menu! The little ones get a kid-sized bowl of noodles for $2.40, hold the onions.
This is the first Vietnamese noodle house menu I've ever read that makes sense. If you've never eaten Oriental noodles and want to try a bowl, Pho Cong Ly is a great place to go. Everything is clearly explained, the soup is good and you can get a taste for the whole experience without being daunted by the language barrier. It's also breathtakingly cheap.
When I next take somebody out to eat noodles for the first time, I'll be back here. But true to its American chain-restaurant-hood, Pho Cong Ly is missing something in the noodle house atmosphere department. And I admit maybe the straightforward menu took some of the romantic mystery out of the whole affair. I guess I've become fond of the mom-and-pop noodle houses with the burning stick of incense stuck into the Buddha statue, the abandoned Vietnamese newspapers on the tables and the soupstained menus that don't make any sense.