One of the first times my parents came to visit Houston, their friends invited them to eat at Thuan Kieu Com Tam (10792 Bellaire Blvd; 281-988-8865), which at the time was a rather shabby hole-in-the-wall place. To hear my dad describe it, it was practically slum-like.
"When I pulled up, I couldn't believe they invited me to this place," he said, offended that his friends would hold him in such low regard that they would take him to the dingy restaurant. In the Vietnamese tradition, when you invite someone out to dinner, it shouldn't be too shabby a place. Nonetheless, by the time dinner was over, they understood why their friends had chosen such a place. Everything they ordered was delicious, he explained, and his friend's offense of selecting the shabby restaurant, forgiven.
It's true that Thuan Kieu Com Tam sits in a less-than-upscale strip mall next to a Dollar General store on Bellaire at Wilcrest, and that you won't be impressed driving up to it. But since my dad's visit years ago, it has moved up in the world, investing in a renovation that tripled the original size of the restaurant while sprucing up the interior to what is now a bright, clean space, capable of accommodating large families and large groups.
And the Vietnamese food is still generally excellent. This is the place I like to go for a com phan gia dinh, which means prix-fixe family meal. The set menu is portioned appropriately for families of according to the number of diners, and it's a considerable value over ordering the same items separately.
I took some friends who had never been, and we ordered the three-person family menu, which came with five dishes: goi sua tom thit, or jellyfish, shrimp and pork salad; ca kho to, or caramelized catfish in clay pot; chem chep xao, or sauteed mussels; ga hai nam, or cold chicken with ginger; and canh ca chua, or sweet and sour fish soup. The dishes represent a typical Vietnamese family meal in southern Vietnam, and the price for all of it was cheap, just $32.
Goi sua tom thit is made of shredded corn, thin cucumber slices, shredded lotus shoots, shredded steamed pork, shrimp and jellyfish, topped with some crushed peanuts and herbs. Seasoned with a sweet fish sauce mixture, the textures and the temperature are what always stand out for me. It's cool and refreshing, while the textures make each bite noteworthy: the jellyfish is a bit chewy, shredded vegetables and peanuts are crunchy, pork is tender. It's one of my favorite starters, especially in the summertime, and Thuan Kieu does it very well.
The ca kho to, which Nicolas Hall wrote about at Van Loc, is arguably better here. In fact, it's my favorite place to go for the caramelized catfish. The caramel sauce is made of fish sauce, sugar caramel, and some other mystery ingredients, giving it a deep brown russet molasses color. The clay pot comes out bubbling hot, and topped with some black pepper and very small chunks of crispy fried fat, kind of like lardon. Steeped in the caramel sauce are succulent slices of catfish, and the flavor is sweet, rich, smoky, salty, strong. It was created to be eaten with rice, and the thing to do is to drizzle some of the sauce over the rice, then take a small piece of fish and plop it in your mouth before following the bite up with some sauce-drenched rice.
To soften the flavor of the fish, it's traditionally eaten together with a the canh ca chua sweet and sour fish soup. Again, this is a traditional dish, but Thuan Kieu does it really well. The clear broth is sweet with pineapple chunks, yet sour from the tamarind in the soup base enriched with catfish. The soup itself is a hodgepodge of tomatoes, bean sprouts, pineapple, okra and catfish. It's also served with a side of hot red chili peppers, and the idea is to fish out the catfish slice, set it atop the red chilis, then pour some fish sauce over it for seasoning.
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There are other places where you can get similar meals, but Thuan Kieu is top of its class in this category. So if you want to try an authentic traditional Vietnamese family meal that a Vietnamese person (my dad) can't even complain about, come here for dinner and prepare to feast.