By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Winding the curly yellow egg noodles around the red barbecued pork slivers with my chopsticks, I put together a large bite and raise it to my mouth. The noodles are wonderfully chewy, and the pork is tangy with sweet and sour barbecue sauce. Chives add an herbal accent. Mi xa xiu(egg noodles and barbecued pork) is a popular late-night snack at Tan Tan restaurant on Ranchester just off Bellaire. At the suggestion of a Vietnamese friend, I got the broth on the side this time. She told me the noodles stay al dente that way, and she was right.
My dining companion gets mi hoanh thanh, egg noodle soup with wontons. We switch bowls for a minute. Sure enough, her soup-soaked egg noodles are already much softer than my dry ones. A diaphanous wonton (or hoanh thanh, as the Vietnamese call it) becomes as elusive as a doughy white fish as I chase it around the bowl with my chopsticks. In the end, it yields only to a direct stab to the filling. But the delicate texture of the dumpling makes it worth the effort.
The colored lights flashing above our table, eye-stabbing strip of neon in the window and throbbing Asian dance music soundtrack make it easy to understand why Tan Tan is a favorite late-night stop for hungry party hounds. The place stays open until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends, and there's a Houston cop at the front door to keep things from getting out of hand.
Houston, TX 77036
Region: Outer Loop - SW
There are more than 400 items on the oversize menu here, including some 87 soups. But oddly, Tan Tan, a restaurant known primarily for its noodles and soups, doesn't serve pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup that is most familiar to the American audience. Instead, Tan Tan specializes in some of Vietnam's other famous noodle dishes, which include bun(vermicelli), hu tieu (rice noodles) and mi(egg noodles).
An article about ramen appeared in the New York Times food section a few weeks ago (not the cheap packaged noodles that you pour hot water over, but the freshly made Japanese egg noodles that inspired the instant ones). The story explained that ramen is traditionally served in an artfully composed bowl of soup topped with pork slices and other garnishes. The painstaking attention to detail common in ramen houses in Tokyo is now surfacing in New York, according to the author. After the article appeared, I got a flurry of e-mails asking me where to find the stuff in Houston.
As I told the e-mail writers, you can find real ramen at traditional Japanese restaurants like Sasaki on Westheimer. But in Houston, Vietnamese mi is a much better bet. We don't have many Japanese restaurants, but we have some of the best Vietnamese noodle houses in the country. And while Vietnamese mi-makers may not be quite as obsessive about decorating as their Japanese counterparts, they are serious indeed about noodle-making.
Mi is the Vietnamese version of ramen, my Vietnamese friend told me. Mi (pronounced "me") actually means "noodles" in Vietnamese, but it's used to describe egg noodles in particular as well as the soup they're traditionally served in. Mi soups are made with a broth of pork and dried shrimp and are served with a wide choice of toppings, including barbecued pork, shrimp and wontons.
Mi can be found among the many other offerings at noodle shops like Tan Tan, but lately, some places dedicated to mi and only mi have popped up in Chinatown.
Mi Cay Tun (11528 Bellaire, 281-568-8835) is one such restaurant. It has just six items on the menu, and as the name suggests, mi is its specialty. The kitchen turns out Vietnamese egg noodles in two sizes: a broad, flat, addictive egg noodle with a wonderfully slippery texture, and the usual skinny, curly variety. I also noticed a brand-new restaurant called Mi #1 on Bellaire that, it appears, will be opening soon.
So what's up with mi, all of a sudden? "Is mi the new pho?" I asked my Vietnamese friend.
"No way," she said.
"Which do you like better?" I asked.
"You can't choose between them, they're both great," she said. "I grew up eating pho for breakfast." She went on to describe the warming flavor of the hot beef broth and chunky rice noodles on a cold winter morning, but of course she lost me. We didn't eat beef soup for breakfast at my house. It's probably a lot more exciting than oatmeal in the morning, but for the time being, I'll keep pho in the lunch category.
"Mi, I associate with late nights. It's the perfect midnight snack after you've had a few drinks," my friend continued. "It's what all the kids eat after they've been out clubbing all night." There used to be a lot of late-night noodle restaurants, she says, but Tan Tan has something of a monopoly on the category these days. Tan Tan may be open late, but few noodle lovers think it has the best mi.
In fact, just a few shopping centers away, Tau Bay restaurant (8282 Bellaire, 713-272-8755) has painted the slogan "best Vietnamese noodle shop in town" on its wall. I ordered the mi hoanh thanh and was treated to one of the most beautiful bowls of noodles I've had in Houston. The snow-white, paper-thin slices of pork were artfully spread across the top of the bowl with a garnish of chives. The fresh, springy egg noodles were fantastic.