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"Was everything all right?" David Ngo inquired anxiously on my first visit to Cali Sandwich. "Be honest, now." He dropped his voice to a whisper and leaned over the cash register. "I know my father talked you into that sugar cane drink. If you didn't like it, you don't have to pay for it." Charles Ngo hovered nearby but out of earshot, beaming and nodding at me.
Yes, he talked me into it, but I really did like the sugar cane drink. Even better, I liked watching its manufacture: A stainless steel machine gobbles up the thick, green stalks then, whirring and grinding like a trash compactor, spits them out depleted. David's dad then runs the stalks through again, adding quartered oranges on the second pass. More wet whirring sounds produce a tall Styrofoam cupful of syrupy, pale-green liquid, sweet and fragrant with fresh orange.
I've found this well-scrubbed little deli in the delft blue and white Phuoc Loc Tho shopping strip at Travis and Elgin as welcoming and comfortable as a relative's living room. "We wanted to make a gathering place, a communal space," says David. "This is where my family gathers; we don't even cook at home anymore." On my first visit, David introduced himself and his parents, Charles and Carolyn Ngo. My very next trip garnered a first-name greeting, an introduction to one of his five sisters, Mary Ngo, and a warm, motherly hug from Carolyn. The Ngos, in fact, own the shopping center, too; they are well-known and respected investors in the Asian community, committed to rebuilding and revitalizing worn, gray urban areas and nurturing small businesses within them.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Along with the hugs, the Ngo clan dispenses family-recipe comfort food from the storefront cafe that doubles as a neighborhood convenience store. A rummage through the drinks cooler reveals diet Cokes next to canned chrysanthemum tea and Dr Pepper cheek by jowl with pennywort soda. Packets of Oriental-style beef jerky, dried tilefish and taro snack chips are piled on the counter, which shelters a carefully tended Guandi shrine in an alcove beneath, complete with a miniature gold Buddha, wands of incense and offerings of oranges for the ancestors. Another, bigger Buddha perches next to the cash register, and for good measure there's a third high on the wall behind it.
It was the siren call of good, cheap poor boy sandwiches that lured me here in the first place. Called "Bahn Mi," Cali's poor boys are seven-inch assemblages of fresh vegetables and meat on thick, flaky-crusted white bread, dressed with a homemade mayonnaise spiked with soy sauce. Each sports a cucumber spear and long strands of marinated carrot, jicama and onion, topped with a couple of slices of fresh jalapeno. Cut in cross-section, the sandwiches are as prettily patterned as California rolls. They're quite a bargain, too, at less than three bucks each.
My current favorite is the seasoned grilled pork sandwich ($2.20), Cali's specialty. The marinated meat is chewy and smoky-sweet like the best Thai sate, bundled cozily into the bread. I also like the chicken edition, in which the marinated meat is grilled and then shredded ($1.50), and I can even appreciate the vegetarian version ($2.50) despite my carnivorous preferences. It includes two long slabs of tawny tofu tinted with soy and spiked with black pepper.
On especially hungry days I'll tank up on an enormous bowl of Cali's steaming-hot noodle soup. Carolyn Ngo prepares two versions of her family's special-recipe spicy beef soup; I like the meatier $5 rendition that adds sliced pork patties to the mix. Although it is noodle soup, it is emphatically not the familiar Vietnamese pho so common in the neighborhood. Carolyn Ngo's colorful, high-intensity blend is richer, more flavorful and deeply satisfying. Generous slices of smoky beef and sprigs of fresh green cilantro float in a fiery red broth alongside circlets of pale Hue-style pork (reminiscent of firm Braunschweiger punctuated with whole black peppercorns) and loads of thick, slippery noodles. Diners swirl in the contents of a side platter piled high with shredded red cabbage, fresh basil and waxy white bean sprouts as needed.
"We thought there were too many pho shops already around us," explains David. "My parents wanted to offer something different, for people who are adventurous. So we made my mother's spicy beef soup the centerpiece of our menu."
On my first visit, Charles Ngo gently suggested that I order the soup "not so spicy." I insisted that I wanted mine very spicy. I paid for that bit of bravado; as I sniffled and slurped teary-eyed through the birdbath-sized bowl, his wife brought me a glass of ice water with a sympathetic wink and a barely suppressed grin. I've since learned to back down a bit on the heat index, but either way the soup is delicious.
Despite the restaurant's name, Cali is not strictly a soup-and-sandwich shop. The extensive menu includes dozens of heartier noodle, rice and vegetarian main dishes ranging from $4 to $7 each, plus ingenious little surprises like lemongrass-scented baked Cornish hen ($4.25) or Vietnamese pork and shrimp pizza ($4.50). The same seasoned grilled pork I like so much in the poor boy makes an entree appearance mounded over steamed sticky rice ($5.00), accompanied by crisp fried egg rolls, a vinegary dipping sauce and a fresh salad of tomatoes and carrots.
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.
"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.