Most contemporary menus have ditched hyper-specialization in favor of a broader, more democratic approach to serving food. These days, it's nearly impossible not to stumble into a place that attempts to appease even the most incongruent of groups, be they infiltrated by adventurous epicures, fussy foodies, or every mouth in between.
But even the most unfocused menus lack the diversity of foodstuffs on display — literally and figuratively — at Lobster and Pho, which opened its doors this past summer at Rockside Corners Shopping Center in Independence. Why go to a restaurant that specializes only in Vietnamese pho, or Maine lobster rolls, or Cajun seafood boils, or Japanese tonkatsu when you can order all four (and more!) in a single sitting?
Well, the answer, of course, is because diversification is a double-edged sword; the KISS principle applies as well to restaurant menus as it does to modern architecture. That said, while I firmly believe that you will get better versions of both pho and seafood in a bag elsewhere, this quirky Asian eatery is not without its appeal and utility, especially given the address.
"There isn't much pho or seafood boil options in Independence," says Priscilla Chau. "Most are closer to downtown."
Chau operates the restaurant with her father Kenny Chau, who also owns the popular Hunan by the Falls in Chagrin Falls and Hibachi to Go in Shaker Heights. The sheer volume of eaters in the area combined with the scarcity of independent ethnic eateries led the team to expand their portfolio southward. And while the curious mashup of cuisines might seem random, there is solid logic behind it, Priscilla promises.
"Because we know that Independence is such a busy area, a lot of people won't come to eat seafood because they want something fast," she reports. "The pho is more popular during lunchtime because it's fast. On nights and weekends, the seafood boils are more popular. The tonkatsu was added as another option for people who are here with friends but not necessarily wanting to eat seafood or pho."
Seafood, namely lobster, is the main draw. The first thing guests notice after crossing the divide is a double-decker tank filled with living, breathing sea life. Those soon-to-be-crimson crustaceans meet their fate in a number of delicious ways. Whole tails are panko-breaded and fried as an appetizer; whole lobsters star in their own boiling seafood bags (or join friends in combo bags) and, for people who eschew exoskeleton vivisection, there are sweet, meat-filled lobster rolls. Take it from a lobster lover, the rolls ($17) served here are proper, right down to the toasted split-top bun. Beneath a layer of whole claws is a base of chopped meat augmented by little more than a slick of melted butter and whisper of mayo.
One of the risks associated with ordering whole live lobster out is sticker shock. MP (market price) is meaningless when a staffer reaches for a leviathan and blows the nest egg. Here, a chalkboard lists prices for "small" and "large," described to us as around a pound and a quarter and a pound and three quarters. Our server even offered to present the guys (or gals) to the table before heading to the kitchen. We declined.
The electric Cajun-Vietnamese spice blend in the boil ($27 for small, $35 for large) elevates the lobster to heights unattainable by a simple steam and butter dunk. All the dirty work is done for you in the kitchen, with the tail split and flayed, claws and knuckles cracked. As is typical, boils include sliced andouille sausage, steamed new potatoes and corn on the cob. Not once has the corn in a seafood boil not been sodden and mushy, and this bag didn't mar that streak.
Live lobster turned out to be a safer bet than head-on shrimp ($15 per pound), a boil marred by more than a few unappealingly soft specimens. Other boils star crawfish, snow crab, King crab, clams and combinations thereof. Compared to meals at similarly styled outfits, I found the spice levels dialed way back, with "medium" barely breaking a sweat.
Pho fans will find more compelling bowls elsewhere, but the rare beef ($10) version with all the trimmings still brings comfort on a chilly day. For a bet-hedger, the tonkatsu ($10) is a solid entry, with expertly panko-breaded and fried cutlets of pork, chicken and fish, each paired with steamed rice, a sweet, mild curry sauce, and dressed greens.
A wall of windows is all that separates diners from a busy parking lot, where an infinite stream of people head to one of a dozen or so restaurants. On this side of the glass, diners enjoy swift service but a generic strip-mall tableau comprised of faux rock walls, faux tin ceilings, and far too many televisions for the size of the room. On the other hand, there's a full bar and a happy hour that runs till close.