By Molly Dunn
By Catherine Gillespie
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Mai Pham
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
The waitress puts a Heineken and a tall pilsner glass full of ice in front of me, and I pour the beer over the rocks. My brother Scott rolls his eyes. "Since when do you drink beer on the rocks?" he wants to know.
I explain that the first time I visited Ba Ky, the sumptuous new Vietnamese restaurant near the intersection of Beltway 8 and Bellaire, the waiter poured my beer over ice without asking. That's the way they drink beer in Vietnam, he told me. It was a hot day, I was thirsty, and the suds on the rocks looked pretty inviting, so I went ahead and drank it. Now I've gotten into the habit -- at least here at Ba Ky, where they automatically bring a glass of ice with beer.
I've been to Ba Ky at least a half-dozen times since it opened a few months ago. It's become one of my favorite places to bring visitors from out of town. (Scott lives in Austin.) The restaurant is a short drive away from Hong Kong City Mall, a mandatory stop on any serious food lover's tour of Houston. Much of the food at Ba Ky is unusual, and some of it is stunningly good. It's especially fun to show the palatial Ba Ky to people who think all ethnic restaurants are tacky little dumps. Their eyes invariably pop out of their heads.
Com Bo Luc Lac: $8.95
Vietnamese fajitas: $9.95
Clay pot (beef or chicken): $9.95
Ca Chien Nuoc Cot Dira: $16.95
Ice cream in fruit shell: $4
Durian smoothie: $3.25
French colonial furniture, columns of giant bamboo stalks and tropical arrangements of birds of paradise and pineapples greet you at the massive front door. The bar is a vast expanse of exquisite woodwork. The dining rooms are split between two levels. The ceiling fans are spade-shaped paddles of woven palm that go back and forth in unison as if they were powered by a rowing team.
Scott is impressed. And he's thrilled about the food. He's on the Atkins diet, and Vietnamese grilled meats served on cool greens with herbs and spicy dipping sauces are perfect for the high-protein regimen. He orders Com Bo Luc Lac, which translates to flame-broiled beef chunks served with a vinaigrette salad and your choice of rice. (He asks for extra salad instead of the rice.) The tender broiled beef cubes are served over lettuce, lots of tomatoes and some barely cooked snow peas. A sweetened vinegar dipping sauce comes on the side.
I order the Vietnamese fajitas, a plate of grilled beef served with herbs, vegetables and condiments, which you roll up in rice-paper wrappers. The hot beef retains the tang of a lemongrass marinade, and the tomatoes, cukes, onions, sprouts, mint, basil, shredded carrots, jalapeño slices and romaine leaves are all fresh and chilled. If you eat Vietnamese roll-your-own spring rolls a lot, you've had the frustrating experience of getting a pile of rice-paper sheets that are stuck together; peeling those little devils apart is harder than skinning catfish. But at Ba Ky, the sheets are brought to the table on a stack of dividers that look like pink Ping-Pong paddles. The paddles keep the sheets from sticking to each other, and little nubs on the paddles keep the sheets from sticking to the plastic.
There are more gadgets. Scott wants to know what the trapdoor in the top of the table is all about. I pull up the insert to reveal a hot plate that is built into a recessed shelf. "It's for hot-pot dishes," I tell him. "We're not ordering one."
Most hot pots leave me cold. One recent evening, with six New Yorkers in tow, I ordered the most expensive hot pot on Ba Ky's menu, a seafood extravaganza called Ta Pin Lu Do Bein. The waiter brought a pot of plain water to the table and put it on the hot plate. Then we got an assortment of seafood: shrimp, scallops, oysters, fish pieces and fake crab. The vegetable bowl held spinach, napa cabbage, tofu and two uncooked eggs. The waiter volunteered to make a sauce out of the raw eggs with soy, chile paste and so forth. I suppose it was obvious that we didn't know to do this ourselves.
In fact, we were arguing about how the whole thing worked. I guessed we were supposed to poach the seafood a little at a time and then have the broth later. The hungry guys in the crowd thought we should shove everything we could into the pot immediately. In the end, the poached seafood wasn't that exciting, the raw egg sauce and fake crab were completely unappealing, and there were so many other good things on the table that eventually we all lost interest. Maybe I'll take some hot-pot lessons and come back and try again.
More likely, I'll just stick with the dishes that Ba Ky does best. Chief among these is Ca Chien Nuoc Cot Dira, crispy fish with red coconut sauce. It's a whole catfish, fried in a light tempura batter so that every piece is moist and tender on the inside with a crunchy coating on the outside. The fish is served swimming in a rich and spicy coconut red curry. Every time I pull off a little piece of fish, dip it into the sauce and pop it in my mouth, I make embarrassing sounds of appreciation. My daughter says I sound like a cartoon dog.