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The glass is tinted dark, and the paint above the window is peeling. The Thiem Hung Vietnamese sandwich shop looks pretty shabby from the outside, but Houston Presscontributing writer Paul Galvani is determined to eat lunch here. "Banh mi thit, that's what we're looking for," says Paul, pointing to the three magic words on the restaurant's sign. The interior is actually brightly lit and clean. The crowd is young, Vietnamese and good-looking -- boys with earrings and hip-hop haircuts, and girls in tight-fitting designer pants. The walls are covered with arty black-and-white photos of rural Vietnam and urban Houston. Not at all what I was expecting.
The Vietnamese sandwiches come in $1.50, $2 and $2.50 sizes here. Paul gets a pâté sandwich, and I order a barbecued-pork-and-pâté combination, both in the $1.50 size. The bread is a section of a crusty baguette, warmed thoroughly in a toaster oven. The bread is split and buttered before the meats are added. The pâté is homemade, we are told, from beef and liver. The condiments are carrot shreds, a cucumber sliced lengthwise, slivers of jalapeño, cilantro and a couple of shots of soy sauce.
A pregnant silence descends as Paul and I eat our sandwiches. A shower of crumbs accompanies every bite -- the bread is exceptionally crunchy, like a good baguette should be. The dark black pâté is excellent. And then the moment of judgment arrives. "I think it's just as good as Givral's," Paul says.
2108 Pease St.
Houston, TX 77003
Region: East End
Banh mi thit (Vietnamese sandwiches): $1.50-$2.50
Vietnamese iced coffee: $2
"I think it's actually better," I answer in amazement.
Finding a new Vietnamese sandwich shop has been a top priority for Houstonians lately. "Now that Givral's Sandwiches on Milam has had a fire, where can one find cheap, great Vietnamese subs?" a reader named Saundra Brown asked me in a recent e-mail. Saundra isn't the only person with this question on her mind. Downtowners reportedly are wandering around Little Saigon like a bunch of junkies in search of a fix ever since Givral's closed for repairs.
So with Paul's help, I went on a two-day banh mi thit binge. And I discovered that while Vietnamese sandwiches may all look the same, the differences in taste range from subtle to profound.
Banh mi means "bread roll" in Vietnamese, and thit is variously translated as "meat" or "ham." A banh mi thit (Vietnamese sandwich) is a crusty little baguette stuffed with your choice of seasoned or barbecued pork, chicken, Vietnamese meatball, pâté or a combination of meats, with carrots, cucumbers, hot peppers, cilantro and soy sauce. The multicultural mélange on a bun has become one of Houston's favorite lunches in the last few years -- not only because it tastes so good, but because at $2 apiece, it's one of the best food deals in the city. Givral's (2704 Milam) was a Press newsroom favorite for many years, but it is temporarily closed because of the kitchen blaze.
Starting at Givral's and working my way down Milam and up Travis, I checked out several other possibilities. Right across the street from the shuttered Givral's is a bakery called La Baguette (2808 Milam, 713-520-5475), which has recently started making banh mi thit sandwiches on fresh-baked rolls. The bakery has always served a vegetarian buffet at lunch, and it used to offer vegetarian sandwiches only. But since Givral's closed, they have expanded their menu to include the meat-stuffed variety as well. Unfortunately, the sandwiches taste like they were made by vegetarians. The meat portions are skimpy, and the pâté looks like some kind of canned meat spread. The pickled daikon is a nice touch, though, and the bread is an authentic Vietnamese baguette. I am willing to bet this place serves one helluva vegetarian Vietnamese sandwich.
Across the street and down a few blocks is Cali Sandwich(3030 Travis, 713-526-0112), a Vietnamese restaurant that serves its namesake dish along with pho and other things. It's noon, and the place is packed. I order a pork-and-pâté combo sandwich, which comes on a blunt-end banh mi roll that looks like it was baked at La Baguette. The bread is nice and crunchy, but not very hot. The pâté is the liverwurst type; the pork has an artificial red color and a revolting jellied texture near the edges. There is more jalapeño pepper on this sandwich than usual. As I chew, I gulp soda to douse the heat. The jellied pork gives Cali's sandwiches a below-average grade.
On the other hand, the barbecued pork on the sandwich served at Ba Le in the Hoa Binh Center (2800 Travis, 713-520-1965) is top of the class. Black and spicy along the edges, the pork tastes like the real thing, and it makes a terrific sandwich stuffing. The pâté is a spread, but it's not too bad. The bread is a tapered torpedo roll with a razor slash on top -- I am pretty sure it's actually a Mexican bolillo. This bread is chewier and doughier than a banh mi roll, but regardless, the sandwich, as far as I'm concerned, is the tastiest one available in Little Saigon. The Vietnamese iced coffee looks pretty good, too. Ba Le also wins the award for the weirdest decor: It looks like somebody gift-wrapped the front counter.