Chow, Baby: Wednesday, September 8, 2004
Mixed Plate

Chow, Baby has seen enough early John Woo movies to recognize Phu Lam, 4125 E. Belknap, as the kind of ultra-chic bistro where any second now Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung could come somersaulting out of the kitchen, guns a-blazing in both hands, to slo-mo blast each strikingly well-dressed patron and most of the windows too. It’s that beautiful. The dining area is large and bright, with clean, modern, minimalist lines in rich earth tones, highlighted with blond wood, metal, and ferns. Truly, it looks like a place you’d see in Hong Kong or Los Angeles or, to name a city Chow, Baby has actually been to, Dallas.

But this is a case where good looks hurt more than help: The Vietnamese and Chinese dishes only occasionally reach the benchmark set by the visuals, and the service doesn’t even try. Chow, Baby has dined at Phu Lam several times since it opened a couple of months ago, and each visit is the same. Diners are handed a phonebook-size menu, are asked 30 seconds later if they’re ready to order, answer “Not yet,” and never see that waiter again. Hours later, another waiter takes pity and takes the order. Then everything — soda, appetizers, entrees, coffee — arrives at once ... but nothing ever leaves. No glass is refilled; no plate, however cleanly licked, is removed. On Chow, Baby’s first visit, dirty dishes covered the table the whole 35 minutes it was waiting for its to-go order, until Chow, Baby was about ready to push them to the floor so it could take a nap. As it turned out, the to-go order had spent the same 35 minutes napping behind the cash register in the back, completely blocked from Chow, Baby’s sight.

Really, the only reason Chow, Baby went back for a second visit was to apologize to the cashier for shrieking at him. But this time, knowing the scoop — that Phu Lam may look upscale, but its informal manners are those of a small, family-run operation — Chow, Baby was able to relax and enjoy the food. More or less. Appetizers vary: Fresh spring rolls and crunchy Vietnamese-style egg rolls ($2.50 per order of two) were very good; crab and asparagus soup ($5.95) was pretty bad; the rest were middling. Pho ($4.25), the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup, was only so-so, as were most of the other noodle and rice dishes that Chow, Baby tried from the “Lunch” chapter of the menu. The exception was the scrumptious vermicelli with shrimp and pork ($5.95), with crispy charcoal-grilled slices of pork and fat, succulent shrimp.

Phu Lam really shines with its fancier dishes. Two of Chow, Baby’s favorites come from the “Dinner” chapter (though, to make things more confusing, any dish can be ordered at any time): Salty shrimp with pepper ($9.95) was so tasty that Chow, Baby forgot to whine about the shells being left on; and marinated beef cubes ($9.95), stir-fried with peppers and onions, were extraordinarily tender and flavorful. For its next visit—and yes, even with all the glitches, there will be another visit—Chow, Baby is studying up on the “Fondue & Hot Pans” chapter, and pledges to spend its wait time gazing not at the dirty dishes but at the beautiful everything else.

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