The Durian Dare

At sumptuous Ba Ky, the beer's on ice, the durian is stinky, and the food is great

She's partial to Ba Ky's charcoal-broiled pork with imperial rolls over vermicelli. While it's indeed a splendid version of that noodle-house standard, I'm inclined to order more upscale fare here. The beef and chicken clay pots, for instance, are both stupendous. The meat and rice are flavored with ginger, scallions and cilantro, then sealed in individual clay pots and baked. The result is a delicious "risotto" in which the meat and rice have melded together into a smooth and creamy casserole.

As for appetizers, the spring rolls are average, and the Vietnamese ham cube wrapped in steamed rice-noodle sheets features lots of gloppy noodles. Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese crepe stuffed with shrimp, chicken and vegetables, tastes like nothing but bean sprouts. But Xoi Vit Chien, an appetizer of roasted duck served with sticky rice patties and a honey-garlic sauce, is extremely good.

I have yet to try the lobster, crab or prawns, and I'm eager to sample the Bo Ba Mon, a three-course beef dinner. Judging by what's on other people's tables, the pineapple fried rice, which is served in a half-pineapple, is popular as well.

The ceiling fans at Ba Ky swing back and forth in unison -- as if they were powered by a rowing team.
Deron Neblett
The ceiling fans at Ba Ky swing back and forth in unison -- as if they were powered by a rowing team.


713-777-8585. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 a.m.

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

9938 Bellaire Boulevard

Ba Ky also serves its pineapple sherbet in a hollowed-out pineapple half. The coconut and mango ices come in real fruit shells, too. It's a breathtaking presentation, but frustrating to eat. The fruits are stored in the freezer, and it takes at least ten minutes before they've thawed enough for you to get a spoon into them. Order dessert in advance.

Ba Ky is popular with the Vietnamese community and makes no effort to cater to Anglos, so don't come here expecting to find Americanized food, American restaurant customs or English-speaking waiters. The television blares, cigarette smokers puff away with no concern for you, and your beer may be served over ice. But if you like ethnic restaurants where you can experience the culture along with the food, this is a great place.

The last time I visited Ba Ky, I stopped in just to have dessert: a durian smoothie. Ba Ky also makes exotic smoothies with soursop, avocado and dragon fruit, but I was especially interested in the durian. I was showing a visiting food writer around, and we had just been admiring the durian at Hong Kong City Mall. My food writer friend admitted he had never tried the stuff, and I thought it might be amusing to witness his first taste.

Durian, known as stinkvrucht in Dutch, is the most highly prized fruit in Asia. The thorny outer shell makes the whole fruit look like a hedgehog, but the soft yellow flesh has a sweet and creamy flavor that is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, for all its succulence, durian smells like rotten eggs.

The first time I tasted the stuff was in the living room of Prabhadpong Vejjajiva, a durian grower in Thailand and that nation's former deputy minister of finance. The news that a Westerner was about to encounter durian for the first time drew a small crowd, including a photographer and reporter from the local newspaper.

As a world-food veteran who has eaten bugs, barnacles and goat brains in the line of duty, I expected to delight the crowd by eating a whole durian at my first sitting. But to my chagrin, the initial bite nearly made me gag. Something about putting that rotten-egg smell in your mouth makes the fruit impossible for first-timers to enjoy. Your brain simply revolts. The Thai photographer recorded my expression of shock, and the crowd roared with laughter.

I guess it's one of those things that grow on you, though, because the durian smoothie at Ba Ky actually tasted pretty good. But while the smoothie was being made, I convinced Ba Ky's bartender, a young Vietnamese-Houstonian with a good sense of humor, to give my friend a piece of durian to eat by itself. The intrepid food writer bravely gave the stinkvrucht a sniff and then, reluctantly, took a bite. Several employees giggled from a discreet distance when they saw the look on his face. I wish I'd had a camera.

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