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.
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.
I was surprised to learn, as I studied opinions on the Internet, that the original Tau Bay on Bellaire isn't as popular as the second Tau Bay over at the corner of Fondren and the Southwest Freeway. It seems the founder sold the first location and moved on to the second, which is much bigger.
The mi at both Tau Bays comes with a pleasing assortment of add-ins. Shredded red cabbage, lettuce leaves, sprouts, basil and cilantro come on one plate, and lime wedges and jalapeño slices come on another. I don't know whether it's authentic to dump all these vegetables into your egg noodles, but they sure add crunch.
Following the posted advice of some seemingly hard-to-please Vietnamese noodle freaks, I went to the preferred second Tau Bay (8150 Southwest Freeway, 713-771-8485) for lunch one day. And I sought out the highly recommended soup called bun bo hue. The menu description seemed innocuous enough -- it said "beef and pork hot pepper noodle soup." But when I tried to order it, the waitress looked at me like I was crazy. She pointed to the picture of another bowl of soup on the menu and told me to get that one instead. I figured she was trying to save me from the hot peppers. So I persisted.
When my bun bo hue arrived, I quickly figured out what the waitress was trying to save me from. The soup was full of tripe, tendons, sheets of fat and other items most Americans consider inedible. Given my recent praise of offal (see "Dancing Delicacies," November 4), I felt obliged to at least try to eat some of this stuff. I did my best. But there were some truly unchewable bits that I had to give up on. I almost asked for a doggie bag, as I think some of those pieces would have made excellent dog toys.
On a subsequent visit to Tau Bay on the Southwest Freeway, I ignored the Internet suggestions and listened to the waitstaff. "Get No. 31," the waitress told my lunch companion in no uncertain terms. It was excellent advice. The spicy pork soup came with vermicelli, shrimp balls and sliced pork with a crunchy garnish of peanuts. With the waitress's approval, I got No. 15, a bowl of mi with pork and seafood and a big piece of crispy pork crackling floating on top. With the lettuce, cabbage, sprouts, herbs and lime stirred in, it made a spectacular lunch on a cold, rainy Wednesday afternoon.
So where should you go to try a bowl of mi? The good news is, you really can't lose. Whether it's the fat noodles at Mi Cay Tun, the beautiful soup at Tau Bay on Bellaire, or a late-night bowl of noodles at Tan Tan, every bowl of mi has something to recommend it.
New York may have artful ramen, but Houston is the place for mi.
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