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Bistro Banh Mi

Cafe TH harkens back to East End Chinatown with a French vibe.

The French aspect of Vietnamese cuisine is present in the ambience at Cafe TH, but, more important, also in the food. Take banh mi bo kho, for instance.

In the same way that pho is more or less a spin-off of the French pot-au-feu (it's even pronounced in a similar fashion) — as most Houstonians likely know by now — banh mi bo kho is a close relative of the Gallic stew but in a different way. There are no noodles in banh mi bo kho — and certainly no tripe — but the broth is beef-based, resplendent with the scent of anise and black pepper and, if you're in the right place, very dark and rich. Cafe TH is that right place.

The familiar "banh mi" portion of the stew's name refers to that crusty French bread that forms the base (and some would say the very soul) of the well-known Vietnamese sandwich. You get a loaf of it along with your bowl of banh mi bo kho, trading one carbohydrate for another. The hearty beef stew with chunks of carrots in it has that signature dark broth at Cafe TH that almost resembles a roux, perfect for softening those crunchy hunks of bread in before eating.

This is the right place to get a dark, rich bowl of banh mi bo kho.
Troy Fields
This is the right place to get a dark, rich bowl of banh mi bo kho.

Location Info

Map

Cafe TH

2108 Pease St.
Houston, TX 77003

Category: Restaurant > Vietnamese

Region: East End

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.

Xiu mai dia: $5

Banh bot chien: $5

Banh mi bo kho: $6.47

Bun thit nuong: $5.99

Pho: $4.99

Bun bo Hue: $6.47

Banh mi: $2.50

Ca phe sua nong: $2.50

Hot tea: $1

Cafe TH

2108 Pease, 713-225-4766

Over lunch one afternoon, my friend David Tong ruminated over his bowl of the stew as he went through a fascinating side ritual: squeezing lime juice into a tiny container of salt, then mixing the two into a paste, dipping his chopsticks into that lime-salt paste and then into a chili paste that was next to it before finally choosing a piece of beef out of the bowl and eating it along with a spoonful of broth. Tong had eaten at Thiem Hung Bakery "since before Houstonians knew there was another kind of -ese besides Chinese," he joked, but hadn't yet been to Cafe TH.

"They do it right here," he said. "See these pieces of beef?" He held aloft a thick chunk of red meat. "This is a good piece of meat. They all are. Most places just give you a bunch of fatty pieces, a bunch of castoffs." He resumed slurping up the broth approvingly and turned his attention to my bun bo Hue.

"Do you know anything about Hue?" he asked me as I sipped the lemongrass-flavored broth of my soup, named for the Central Vietnamese region and its ancient capital. I shook my head. Tong launched into an Indiana Jones-style anecdote about the old imperial capital, today filled with relics of a past era and riddled with bullet holes from the present era. "Do you want some of my bun bo Hue?" I asked, offering him a spoonful.

He declined. "I don't like blood cakes," he said, pointing at a harmlessly bobbing chunk of what looked like reddish-brown tofu. I countered, "It's not that bad!"

"Oh yeah? Then eat it," he challenged me. I paled, my bluff having been called. In all my bowls of bun bo Hue, I'd never eaten the blood cake, relegating it to seasoning and avoiding it as you would a bay leaf.

I took a bite of the soft square and immediately regretted my decision. It tasted like chalk mixed with copper and silken tofu. I very nearly spit it out as Tong just laughed at me from across the table.

But blood cakes aside, there's something for everyone to love at the new Cafe TH. Whether it's business people dashing in to get an order of six banh mi for the office (buy five and get one free!) or older folks catching up over bowls of soup and cups of ca phe sua nong, whether it's hippie UH students enjoying vegan pho (yes, vegan pho ) or traditionalists like my friend David Tong grabbing a bowl of comfort that's just verging on equal with his mother's stew, Cafe TH is the new face of old Chinatown. Welcome back.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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