Hey, gang! Hungryman here with a two-for-one review! Overcome by a strong craving for Vietnamese food, MJ and I visit Pho Dan and Dang Banh Mi to get our grub on.
Growing up in Houston, finding good Vietnamese food never really required much effort. You could drive down Bellaire and pretty much run into a different pho place at every stop light. Here in Austin, though...not quite as easy. Either that or I'm just not looking in the right places. In either case, MJ and I are scouring Round Rock/North Austin for our three favorite dishes - pho, banh mi, and com bo luc lac.
A couple months back while catching up on old mail, I discovered that Pho Dan had opened up in the La Frontera area of Round Rock. I had heard good things about the location on N. Lamar, so I looked forward to trying out the younger establishment.
MJ went with Com Bo Nuong Cha Gio (rice with grilled beef and fried egg roll). The beef (as you can see above) had gorgeous grill marks and had beautiful flavor to match. The bed of steamed jasmine rice helped balance the saltiness of the marinade and the nuoc cham dipping sauce. The only qualm I had with the dish was the egg roll filling. It was a little too loose/soft for my liking, but the egg roll itself was fried to a perfect crispness.
Before I get ahead of myself, though, let's rewind to the appetizer - spring rolls. But instead of going with the classic shrimp and boiled pork combo, we opted for the marinated grilled chicken. This was truly the unexpected delight of the meal. We both loved how well the classic Vietnamese BBQ marinade paired with the fresh mint. Sometimes I think MJ eats spring rolls just for the peanut sauce, so you can only imagine how dejected she was when the accompanying dipping sauce turned out to be nuoc cham. No worries...I quickly requested 2 bowls of her beloved sauce and our waitress was more than happy to oblige.
For me, a big bowl of pho is one of the most comforting dishes out there. I swear there's something magical when the broth is done right. The potpourri of spices in the meat broth gets my taste buds lathered up whenever the steam from the bowl hits the nasal passages.
I ordered my usual - Pho Tai Chin (beef noodle soup with eye round steak and lean brisket). There's a Korean saying (literally translated): "it's 2% lacking." And that's kind of how the broth at Pho Dan measured up for me. Good, but not great.
Located in North Austin on Research Blvd, Dang Banh Mi created quite the buzz when it opened back in July of 2014. Opened by the folks of the Austin icon, Pluckers, DBM put some serious work into their menu with time spent in Vietnam mastering 100-year-old recipes.
Again we started with spring rolls - one tofu spring roll (lemongrass tofu, vermicelli noodles, cucumber, lettuce, pickled papaya and carrots, cilantro, fresh mint and Thai basil) and one pork & shrimp spring roll. Sadly, both rolls left much to be desired. MJ found the lemongrass flavor of the tofu overwhelming, almost to the point of being off-putting. She tried to mask it with peanut sauce, but their thin, watered-down version had issues of its own. Both rolls were unevenly filled and the rice paper wrappers were not moist enough resulting in tough, chewy ends.
We kept our hopes up, though, as their specialty was still to come. I wanted to try the Oxtail (12 hours braised oxtail from homemade pho stock), but thought it more appropriate to try The Dang Original (Char Siu pork belly, pork tenderloin, ground pork, homemade pâté, mint, cilantro, green onion, cucumber, Char Siu sauce, saté, Japanese mayo, and pickled papaya and carrots). And if that wasn't enough ingredients, I chose to add a fried egg. Right off the bat, I noticed the bread was different from the banh mi I was used to. The crust didn't have quite the crunch, and the bread itself was more dense, which resulted in a rather large sandwich. There was no lack of flavor in the banh mi, but the sheer number of ingredients made for a muddled experience. The fresh veg got completely lost in the barrage of pork and sauces.
MJ, enamored by its description, chose the Egg Mi - 2 fried eggs, cheese, green onion, white onion, cilantro, cucumber, Char Siu sauce, saté, Japanese mayo, and pickled papaya and carrots. Not nearly as heavy as The Dang Original, it was like a play on an egg salad sandwich. In place of mayo, the Laughing Cow cheese provided a creamy, sour component. I think I appreciate banh mi, in general, for its simplicity and well-balanced flavors. Unfortunately, Dang Banh Mi missed the mark on both points.
Pho Dan is located at 2711 La Frontera Blvd, Round Rock TX 78681
Dang Banh Mi is located at 9070 Research Blvd #303, Austin TX 78758