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Cali Sandwiches

Big hugs, tasty poor boys and durian -- if you dare

Mornings find Cali busy as regular customers gather to sip iced coffee. "It's the traditional Vietnamese way to start your day, by going to the neighborhood cafe," explains David. "We'll get whole families -- grandfathers, parents, grandkids, everybody -- stopping by here for an hour or so every morning."

By lunchtime, business is brisk, both for takeout and for dining in at the deli's dozen tables. The weekday lunch combo -- pick three items plus steamed rice for only $5.00 -- is as popular with the backpacking University of Houston students who originally discovered the place as with area businessmen who simultaneously ply chopsticks and cell phones, and on-the-run medical center types in scrubs hung with hospital IDs and pagers. "I wish I could have found a healthy, cheap place to eat like this when I was in Austin," says David, who recently graduated from UT's media program. "I know what it's like to be hungry and broke all the time."

Cali's extensive repertoire of fruit smoothies ($2 each), frothy concoctions of crushed ice, sweetened fresh fruit and skim milk blended before your eyes, is delightful. There are banana and pineapple and papaya smoothies on the menu, as you might expect, but also more exotic tropicals like jackfruit and guabana and durian. I leapt at the chance to check off another item from my life list by ordering a durian smoothie.

Location Info

Map

Cali Sandwich

3030 Travis
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Restaurant > Sandwiches

Region: Downtown/ Midtown

"Oh, don't get that," warned Mary, wrinkling her nose. "It stinks."
Durian is something I'd read about but never seen. Resembling an evil, green grenade with wicked spikes, this thorned fruit is said to be the foulest-smelling item in any Southeast Asian produce market. Singapore subways post red-slashed "No Durian" signs; the fruit is banned from government buildings in Malaysia and Thailand. But the exquisite flavor of the durian is equally famed. Called "the king of the fruits" by its passionate aficionados, at $4 a pound it's one of the most expensive in the world.

"It really stinks," promised David. "My parents love it, but personally I can't stand it."

I had to have it. I was afraid to taste it with the solicitous senior Ngos watching me -- what if I had to spit it out? -- so I ordered one to go and drove carefully home. (The last thing I want is a durian-soaked car seat.)

So, how bad is the alleged worst smell in the world? Pretty bad, but not as lethal as I feared. It's a sharp, green odor, pungent like vinegar, like rotten onions with a grace note of dirty socks. I held my nose and gulped some down and was rewarded with a creamy, sweet taste like banana custard. I'm glad I tried it, but like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it's not something a sensible person needs to do twice.

No, next time I'll try the preserved, salted plum with club soda.

Cali Sandwich, 3030 Travis, Suite A, (713)526-0112.

Got a hot restaurant tip or an interesting piece of food news? E-mail Margaret L. Briggs atmargaretbriggs@houstonpress.com.

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