Bistro Banh Mi
See more beautiful photos from Cafe TH's kitchen and dining room in our slideshow.
In front of me is a small bowl filled with a fatty tomato-ginger broth. In the broth, a handful of small pork meatballs swim languidly. To my left is a basket of freshly baked, nicely crusty French bread. And to my right, a giant pot of jasmine tea, the loose tea leaves turning the water a deeper ochre shade with each passing minute.
At 11 a.m., it's not quite breakfast at Cafe TH, but not quite lunch either; the restaurant has just opened for the day. This bowl of xiu mai dia could be either meal, really. But I think to myself as I tear off one piece of bread after another, dipping it into the hot, rich broth, that I'd be quite happily sustained on this meal for breakfast the rest of my life if need be. Crusty bread, pork, tea and an intensely flavorful broth that is warming on this cold winter day but would be equally charming during the summer with that luscious balance of sweet tomatoes and pert ginger — what else could I ever need?
Owner Minh Nguyen came by my table during this vigil to check on the food, as he does with all of his tables at Cafe TH. He takes his triple role as owner, chef and front-of-house personality quite seriously, but with one of the most good-natured, jovial attitudes I've seen in any restaurant here in Houston. "How is everything today?" he asked.
I sat and raved like an insane person about the soup — and it wasn't even my main course. He patiently listened with a smile on his face. "I want this for breakfast for the rest of my life," I finished finally.
"It's funny you should mention that," he replied. "Most of the older Vietnamese who come in here early get just the xiu mai dia and eat it like breakfast." I wasn't far off in my idea of having this pork-fattened soup for the first meal of the day, it turns out.
When my actual main order came out, I managed to tear myself away from the meatball soup long enough to dive into a bowl of pho that ended up being far better than any banh mi shop has a right to make. The broth was dark — the kind of dark that comes from well-roasted, long-stewed beef bones — and intensely flavored with anise, cloves and just the barest touch of cinnamon. I took a moment to appreciate it before setting it on fire with a tablespoon of Sriracha sauce, then dosing it up with squeezes of lime juice, torn-up mint leaves and plenty of crunchy bean sprouts. It was a masterpiece, and I very nearly ate the entire bowl.
People talk about the illustrious Pho Binh trailer in South Houston and its swarthy, fatty pho in platitudes that are usually reserved for saints and martyrs. But I'd put Cafe TH's resplendent broth up against Pho Binh's any day — even if you can't get an extra side of fat at Cafe TH, and even if the noodles at Cafe TH aren't as fresh as Pho Binh's.
The pho here used to be an afterthought. And it wasn't always called Cafe TH. Longtime connoisseurs of the East End Chinatown will remember the long-standing Thiem Hung Bakery that baked fresh bread and served mostly banh mi.
That's how Minh Nguyen remembers it. And keeping Thiem Hung's traditions of quality and a sense of community was of utmost importance to him when he took over the shop from its previous owners after working with them for two years, learning everything from their recipes to how to keep the books.
The former University of Houston student had once been a regular at Thiem Hung Bakery and took the previous owners quite by surprise when he disclosed his interest in buying it from them. He recalled in an interview with Houston Press blogger Tam Vo back in September, "When I told her I was there to meet about buying the restaurant, she was shocked because she knew me as a UH student and was not expecting me as the buyer. So for two weeks I came in and sat in that [corner] chair there, ran the numbers, analyzed the traffic and studied what people ordered. So, long story short, I'm in my fourth year now."
The result is a reincarnated version of Thiem Hung that has lost none of the quality of the original and added plenty of quality — not to mention charm — of its own. Cafe TH, as it's been rebranded, is now a vibrant, cozy neighborhood cafe that harkens back to the good old days of that once-bustling East End Chinatown and evokes a French bistro vibe at the same time, not at all like the Thiem Hung Bakery of old. Chalk that up to the almost-always-open front doors, the elegant layout that invites you to linger over a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee, the eccentric soundtrack that includes songs like "Geht raus" and "Sie liebt dich" (German renditions of Beatles songs) alongside Glenn Miller and Edith Piaf and the communal atmosphere that brings in young and old, Vietnamese and non-Asians, students and businessmen alike.
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.
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.
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