Crispy Muc, Tender Bo
You dip the golden, batter-fried squid chunks into a little dish of lime juice, salt and pepper before you pop them in your mouth at Jasmine Asian Restaurant on Bellaire. The white squid flesh and pink tentacles on the inside are tender, while the crispy batter on the outside has a light, airy texture -- a combination that can quickly lead to addiction.
During the weekday lunch special, you can get a plate of these fluffy little crispies for a mere $3.95. Muc rang muoi, or "salted, toasted squid," as the dish is called on the menu, isn't exactly what I was looking for, but it's a hell of a find.
What I was looking for was fried cuttlefish, which used to be my favorite dish at the best Vietnamese restaurant in town, A Dong, also on Bellaire. When I first heard that A Dong had gone out of business last month, I nearly wept. It wasn't just the cuttlefish. They had an awesome summer seafood salad that was loaded with jellyfish, not to mention a stunning goat-curry-and-baguette combination. There's another Vietnamese restaurant at A Dong's former location now, but it has a completely different menu.
With A Dong's demise, I was left with the confusing task of picking a new favorite Vietnamese restaurant in a city that seems to have three on every block. I quizzed people wherever I went. I got my first lead about Jasmine when Houston Press staffer Steven Devadanam told me that his father swore by the place. The restaurant opened without fanfare six months ago in the former Ba Ky location on Bellaire, just inside the beltway. I tried to check it out online, but this one was flying so far under the radar, it hadn't even turned up on the Internet yet.
I finally got around to stopping by Jasmine for lunch a couple of weeks ago -- and what an eye-opener that turned out to be. Before I even got in the door, I was shocked to discover that San Tong Snacks, the city's top dumpling shop, had relocated from its dingy hole-in-the-wall location in Diho Plaza to shiny new digs next door to Jasmine. I was tempted to bag the cuttlefish quest and sit down for a bowl of soup dumplings. But I was enticed by a huge banner stretched across the front of Jasmine offering lunch specials from $3.95, so I went in and sat down.
The new restaurant wisely preserved the stylish interior that was already there. The space features high ceilings, exotic French colonial ceiling fans, lovely woodwork and clean, modern lines. It's a huge dining room with seating for hundreds, though I've never seen it more than half full under either the old or the new ownership.
I wasn't terribly impressed with the lunch menu. It's printed on a single sheet of paper, and it offers mainly cheap noodles and soups, including pho (beef noodle soup), mi (egg noodle soup with pork and shrimp broth) and bun (vermicelli). There are a few interesting seafood dishes, like the squid. Much of the rest of the $3.95 lunch menu consists of such Chinese classics as sweet-and-sour pork and General Joe's chicken.
I entertained the thought of getting up and leaving, but my lunchmate sat down and immediately expressed an interest in trying the banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe) on the appetizer menu. That went for a whopping $4.95.
Banh xeo looks more like an omelette than a crepe. It never seemed substantial enough for my appetite. A thin sheet of scrambled eggs is wrapped around a few scraps of pork, a couple of shrimp and a whole lot of bean sprouts. The dish comes with a lettuce-and-fresh-herb plate on the side -- you eat hot chunks of the omelette wrapped up in cold lettuce leaves sprinkled with mint, basil and cilantro. I sampled a few banh xeo lettuce wraps slathered with hot sauce. The dish was much better than I remembered it.
Without really thinking about it, I found myself ordering mi xo xiu wonton, a.k.a. egg noodle soup with roasted pork and dumplings. This is kind of dumb, since Tan Tan, Tau Bay and a half-dozen other restaurants known for their mi are located within blocks of here. My theory is that after I checked out San Tong's new location next door, dumplings invaded my subconscious and took over my voice. Luckily, the shrimp-and-pork-flavored broth was outstanding, and so were the curly egg noodles. The dumplings were a tad soggy, but all in all, Jasmine's mi wasn't such a bad call.
While the lunch fare at Jasmine was good and cheap, I still couldn't understand the restaurant's appeal. There are lots of Asian places with $3.95 lunch specials out there -- most of them are slowly sinking ships. But after the plates had been cleared, I went up to the vacant host stand and grabbed Jasmine's dinner menu. It was a heavy document bound in vinyl. And what a difference between lunch and dinner. There were pages and pages of exotic fare on the big red menu, some of which I had never heard of.
While I was reading, my gregarious lunchmate was chatting up two ladies who were eating lunch at the next table. One of them was of Vietnamese descent, and the other was originally from Pakistan. They worked together in a nearby office building and were experts on the subject of lunch specials. I asked the Vietnamese-speaking woman if she could help me decipher some of the dinner-menu offerings.
She did better than that. After translating a few titles and explaining that Jasmine's specialty was a whole grilled catfish available in small, medium and large sizes and ideal for three or four diners, she summoned the manager to the table to explain the finer points of the specialty called fish seven ways.
I had eaten "beef seven ways" often enough before. It's a parade of beef prepared in seven different styles -- grilled at your table, in soup and salad, ground into rolls and in other forms. But I'd never heard of the fish version of this Vietnamese smorgasbord. I was curious about a couple of points -- like what kind of fish it was. "Grouper," the manager told us. My translator also found out from the manager that the salad called summer delight contained jellyfish, and that Jasmine doesn't serve cuttlefish.
Would I ever eat Vietnamese fried cuttlefish again? I consoled myself by grabbing a sack of frozen dumplings from San Tong on the way to the car.
Having studied the big red menu at length, I gleefully went overboard when we visited Jasmine for dinner. "We'll have lots of leftovers to take home," I reassured the waitress and my tablemates, who saw no way we could eat all the food I'd ordered. But their skepticism disappeared when the dishes hit the table. An order of sub gum noodles with beef turned out to be wide, ragged rice noodles stir-fried until slippery in a fabulous brown sauce with lots of onions and meat. It came to the table first, and nobody could leave it alone.
I made a mistake by ordering summer delight salad for an appetizer and fish seven ways for dinner. It turns out that the cold seafood salad with jellyfish, pork and shrimp drenched in rice vinegar and fish sauce is also the first of the seven fish courses, so we ended up with two plates of summer delight on the table. Luckily, we love the stuff. And our waiter introduced us to a new way to eat it.
The appetizer order came with the crunchy shrimp chips that I'm used to eating with the salad. You use them to scoop up the wiggly jellyfish and pork slivers. Our waiter also brought a stack of dry rice paper and a bowl full of water and gave us a rice-paper-roll demonstration. Of course, we already knew how to make rice paper rolls, but he was far more proficient than we were.
He put a spoonful of fish salad and a tiny bit of each of the herbs from a lettuce-and-herb plate on the center of the moistened rice paper, along with some cucumber, carrot and banana spears, which came on a separate plate. He then rolled the rice paper into a tight little package that held together like magic. "Dip the roll in the fish sauce," he instructed. Business was so slow, he hung around to roll up a perfect little package for each of us.
Meanwhile, several other of our fish courses had been delivered. On one plate were three hot fish-filled egg rolls, three grilled fish-paste fingers, three fish-paste fingers wrapped in the herb called Hawaiian leaf, and three strips of crispy fried fish in bread crumbs. These, our waiter advised, should each be wrapped up in a piece of lettuce, garnished with herbs and dipped into the fish sauce. So we ordered a couple more beers and had a fish-rolling party. Everybody loved them, but I think I'd like Chicken McNuggets if they were wrapped in a lettuce roll with Vietnamese herbs and dunked in fish sauce.
The lemongrass-marinated fish served on a hot skillet should have been the star attraction of the seven fish dishes, but it was bland and difficult to eat, as it was stuck to the skillet. The fish congee, essentially cream of rice cereal with savory fish tidbits thrown in, was pretty tasty once we added some hot sauce.
But as much as I liked the offbeat dining experiences that Jasmine offered, I have to admit that the best thing on the table that night was the most common Vietnamese dish in Houston. Bo luc lac, often referred to as "rock and roll beef," is beef filet chunks and grilled onions served over a salad with rice on the side.
Jasmine's version may be the best I've ever had. The meat is top-quality, without a streak of fat or tendon, and the chunks are at least twice as big as usual. The filet chunks are grilled to a rosy medium instead of the well-done beef you usually get. And it's served with the lime, salt and pepper dipping sauce.
When it was time to pay up and go home, we had little in the way of leftovers.
While I was looking for a Vietnamese restaurant as good as A Dong, I ended up finding one I like even more. I'll always miss A Dong's cuttlefish, but there's more variety at Jasmine Asian Cuisine. And the food is ridiculously cheap.
I still want to sample the items that you grill at your table, the soups that you make with hot pots, and other intriguing dishes from the menu that I haven't figured out. This is a Vietnamese restaurant that could keep an ethnic food explorer busy for months. Browse through Jasmine's big red dinner menu sometime, and you'll see what I mean.
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