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Back to Wok

A pair of Asian pioneers return to blaze new (if familiar) paths

Across town at the new Lido, improbably located in a long-empty former Woolworth store on the busy corner of Elgin and Main, young artist Khon Lu's dad -- to say nothing of his mother the cook, his grandfather the baker and assorted other relatives -- is back in the food business. Bohemian Houston is thrilled. For years, the family's previous South Main establishment, called simply Vietnam, was an artists' hangout, regularly playing host to the likes of sculptor James Surls, the UH Lawndale Annex crowd and the casts of Wortham Center and Alley Theatre productions. Downtown lawyers and politicians also enjoyed the unpretentious joint. It certainly wasn't fancy, and it wasn't expensive. But the food was good and the portions plentiful. Well, get out the party hats: at Lido, the family has replicated everything that endeared Vietnam to its fans. The decor is still non-existent (unless Khon's dad will let him and his artist pals hang their work, though the jury's still out on that one); the basic-Chinese/Vietnamese lunchtime buffet is still incredibly cheap ($4.25 for all you can eat); and in the evening, mama prepares home-style Vietnamese specialties such as pepper pork simmered in caramel. Thin-sliced pork is immersed in nuoc mam, the "secret ingredient" in much Vietnamese cooking that contains everything from fresh herbs and garlic chives to chiles, lemongrass and ginger, and nuoc cham, which includes vinegar, lime juice and sugar. It's then slow simmered in a well-seasoned clay pot for hours on end until the sugar and fruit juices caramelize and the meat absorbs every one of these multitudinous flavors. No two bites ever produce precisely the same taste.

Not as enchanting are tastes of the buffet offerings. Never intended as gourmet cuisine, they're further flattened by the nature of the steam table presentation. Still, the better-prepared dishes, which range from lightly sauteed crisp, fresh whole green beans, stir-fried vegetables, shrimp in the shells (the taste and texture are fine, though it's a lot of work to excavate them) and several good tofu-based items, including one sauteed in a light meat sauce and another fried to a nice degree of crispness, are all worth a second trip to the trough. The standard Chinese-style offerings such as lo mein and moo goo gai pan are, for the most part, nothing special. Next to the forgettable flan, the watermelon slices and the Jell-O sits a weirdly green dessert that looks as if it should glow in the dark. But this traditional Vietnamese gelatin has a firm, substantial texture and a surprisingly pleasing vanilla-y taste. This -- along with the color -- comes from the la yua plant, which grandfather Lu imports from the old country to make sweets at Yen Huong, his bakery on the east side of downtown at Chartres and Dallas.

In a town that's awfully hard on the dreams of restaurateurs, it's good to see such pioneering folks as Wong and the Lus get back into the fray. Although the competition is more intense now than when either of these restaurant owners started, both places still have plenty of loyal fans rooting for them. They should have little trouble finding their niche.

Daniel Wong's Kitchen, 4566 Bissonnet, 663-6665; Lido, 3201 Travis, 523-9295.

Daniel Wong's Kitchen:
velvet corn soup, $2;
gumbo, $2;
Road Kill Pork, $5.95;
South of the Border Turkey, $8.50;
salmon fillet, $9.50.

pepper pork simmered in caramel, $6.50;
lunch buffet, $4.25.

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