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The lunch patrons today at Cuisine de L'Orient (Thien Kim) are all Vietnamese or Vietnamese-Americans, and every occupied table has a family-style soup bowl called a hot pot on it. I take a table by the window and ask the waiter which hot pot he recommends. He suggests I order the hot-and-sour fish soup. He also favors the hot rice rolls over the cold spring rolls, so I give them a try, too.
The little two-bite rolls, six to an order, are made of sticky rice noodle dough steamed with a filling inside. They're served hot, with cold chopped lettuce, cucumber and crispy fried onions on top. They come with a bright red dipping sauce, which seems to contain rice vinegar, chile oil and enough crushed peppers to widen your eyes.
The sign on the corner says Travis and, just below that, Tu Do, the Vietnamese name of the street. In this section of Midtown, all of the signs are written in Vietnamese and English. I guess there's some kind of festival going on because the streets are decorated with yellow flags with red stripes. I ask the waitress whose flag that is. It's the flag of the former democratic republic of South Vietnam, she says.
Hot-and-sour fish hot pot: $7.95
Steamed rice rolls: $4.95
Spring rolls: $4.95
Escargot vermicelli: $5.95
The soup is hot and sour, but it's sweet, too. I can see that the heat comes from slices of jalapeño; I imagine the sour comes from rice wine vinegar. But I can't quite figure out where the sweetness comes from. After munching on the big pieces of catfish, celery slices and tender whole okra pods that float in the spicy fish broth, I finally bite into a pineapple cube. That explains the source of the mysterious sweetness.
There are a lot of small white bits in the bottom of the bowl, too. I figure it's crushed rice, a popular Vietnamese ingredient.
"You don't like rice?" a waitress named Vickie Huynh asks as she refills my water glass, staring at the partially eaten bowl of rice on my table.
"Sure," I answer, perplexed. "But there's some rice in the soup already."
"No, there isn't. You have to put it in yourself," she says.
"So what's this?" I ask, fishing some of the little white squares out of the soup with my spoon.
"That's garlic!" she laughs. "It's cut into little pieces and fried like that."
I am dumbfounded. There must be three tablespoons of garlic in this bowl. I eat some more. It tastes nutty. The garlic's natural flavor is tempered by frying, I guess, just as it is by roasting.
"Do they use catfish and okra in the fish soup in Vietnam?" I ask Vickie. The ingredients sound Southern to me.
Vickie explains that they have okra in Vietnam, but that cooks there use dau or bong lau instead of catfish, and a stalky vegetable like bacha instead of celery. They would also use smaller, hotter peppers instead of jalapeños.
The nutty garlic, hot jalapeño, sweet pineapple, unboned catfish and whole okra combine in an unusual way. The Houston version of hot-and-sour fish soup may not taste exactly like the kind in Vietnam, but it has its own appeal. I sheepishly add some rice to mine, which rounds out the flavor.
This is the second day in a row I've eaten lunch at Thien Kim. I had the escargot vermicelli soup yesterday. The chewy snails were so tough, they reminded me of the rubber tires I used to pull off toy trucks and pop in my mouth when I was a kid. Remember that squeaky sound rubber toys made when you bit them? And the sour grimy taste? That was it exactly. Luckily, the soup had a lot of shrimp and nice slices of pork in it, too.
The waiter tried to talk me out of the escargots. "They're an acquired taste," he said, wincing. I took that to mean he wouldn't eat them. To me, the dish sounded like another one of those fabulous French-Vietnamese fusion concoctions, like the Vietnamese baguette sandwiches. So I had to at least try it. The waiter/manager was a college student named John Ngynh. He was sitting with some friends. I imagine they got a kick out of watching me eat the squeaky snails. But that wasn't half as funny as the scene itself.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and the only other people in the restaurant were Ngynh and his three Vietnamese-American college chums, who were playing cards and eating a Papa John's pizza. I thought it was really hilarious -- for a while. The white guy eating Vietnamese food, the Vietnamese-American kids eating pizza.
"It does seem kind of ironic now that you mention it," Ngynh said with a smile when I pointed out our respective lunches. "But we get sick of eating Asian food every day -- and everybody eats pizza."
Right then, on the oldies station that served as our dining music, Elton John started singing "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and the paradox of the situation struck me. The song took me back to my college years and the war in Vietnam. I was the same age as these Vietnamese-American kids are now.