Walking into Vibe Lounge on Wilcrest just north of Bellaire Boulevard, the atmosphere is definitely more lounge and bar than restaurant. The lights are dim, and neon blue lighting illuminates the space. There are large, flat screen TVs and a sitting area with comfortable white couches. Tall long tables, with plush, modern white barstools invite guests to grab a drink.
It could have been any regular bar serving typical bar food, but in this corner of Alief, a lot of the bars and lounges are offering bona fide good Vietnamese food. Vibe is leading the trend. Regulars rave about the food.
"Best Lau Thai!" asserted my friend Lan on social media, when she saw a picture of it on my Instagram. Indeed, it was the Lau Thai (Thai hot pot) that had drawn me and a companion to Vibe on a recent Wednesday night. That, and the Wednesday special of hot pot and six bottles of beer for $30.
Vibe was pretty tame when we arrived around 6:30 p.m. We grabbed a seat at one of the high tables and placed our order. Service was fast and efficient, and within minutes, the impressive hot pot was set before us.
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The presentation was mouthwatering. A large four to five inch lip surrounded the hot pot, where raw ingredients such as squid, shrimp, fish, thin-cut slices of beef, enoki mushrooms and mussels were tantalizingly arranged. A very large dish of dark green vegetables (water cress and water spinach) and another of rice vermicelli noodles arrived on the side. We also received a small bowl of fish sauce with Thai chilis for dipping the various proteins.
The broth was a sweet and sour tamarind broth, a non-spicy version of the Thai tom yum goong soup. This is what got me. Hot pot, for me, is all about the broth, and this was a broth that you just wanted to keep on eating.
My companion and I made a valiant effort to finish the entire hot pot, but truly, there was enough for three or four to share. As the hour progressed, we saw families and groups of friends enter the restaurant and order things that smelled amazing as that passed by our table.
"See? If you come early, it's just like a family restaurant," my friend, who goes there often, told me. He says that their oysters and salt and pepper fried calamari (muc rang muoi) are excellent as well. Another visit is definitely on the agenda.