California Pho & Grill is a 2-month-old Arlington restaurant just down the way from The Parks mall on congested Cooper Street, so it takes a keen eye to spot it from the main drag.
Lovers of all-foods-Asian should make the effort to do so, because this place is a welcome respite from our boba tea-cluttered landscape. Part-owner Jaclyn Lam and her investor cohort have lovingly infused the space with a warmth — and I’m not just talking about the sriracha sauce that gets a place of pride on every table.
Amid California Pho’s orange-and-dark-wood interior you’ll immediately notice the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen. For that you can thank the three chefs, one each expertly guiding the traditional Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai dishes on the menu.
The menu begins in Vietnam and journeys to China before arriving in Thailand. All of your usual suspects are here — noodle dishes, fried rice, et al. — but California Pho stakes its name on the traditional soup dish, so we started with the perfectly nuanced pho ga ($7.95, chicken), served with a mixture of white and dark meat — each flavorful additions to the savory broth. The usual garnish of jalapeños, lime wedges and bean sprouts added texture.
As we waded further, we continued to find more to like. The lettuce wraps ($6.95) were an attractive tray of lettuce leaves and a small bowl of soy-marinated chicken and veggies. Conveniently, the sriracha was within reach, and it proved a nice, spicy counterpoint to the dish’s sweetness.
While the youngster munched on a seemingly never-ending bowl of passable popcorn chicken ($4.95), the more mature palates at the table dove into salt and pepper shrimp ($13.95), fried in the shell; Korean barbecue ribs ($8.95); and barbecued pork fried rice ($7.95). The Chinese items stood out — we’re still dreaming about the egg-y rice! — and the shrimp were crunchy and held up well under multiple double-dips of hoisin and chili sauce. The ribs, similar to short ribs but less fatty, were the only miss of the meal, suffering from a personality crisis: Are we tough, succulent or perhaps a little of both?
Back in Vietnam, the flat-noodle and combination seafood plate ($9.95) had us comparing it to that at some of our favorite Haltom City haunts. While the cuttlefish were virtually flavorless, I loved the inclusion of the sweet scallops.
A dish of fried ice cream ($4.25), tempura-battered vanilla with whipped cream and a chocolate drizzle, was a perfect ender to the meal. It was dusted with sesame seeds and alternately crispy, creamy and sweet. The kids and grown-ups clamored to play nice and share.
On the way out, we passed the electric fireplace, a classy touch to the contemporary dining room. Perhaps it was the recent roller-coaster weather — and this quite cold day — that had us pledging to sit near it when we return.