Banh cuon is a Vietnamese steamed rice flour crepe stuffed with wood-ear mushrooms and ground pork.
Banh cuon is a Vietnamese steamed rice flour crepe stuffed with wood-ear mushrooms and ground pork.
Photo by Cuc Lam

Skip the Pho, Order These Eight Vietnamese Dishes Instead

I get asked all the time about where to find the best Vietnamese food in Houston. How do I pick just one place? As of the 2010 Census, Houston is home to over 35,000 Vietnamese Americans, making it the fourth largest Vietnamese community in the country. A quick Yelp search returns over 700 eateries serving Vietnamese food in the city and surrounding suburbs. With so many choices, it's difficult to pick just one place that does everything great.

When it comes to Viet-dishes that I love, here are eight traditional favorites to try next time you're Vietnamese-fooding in Houston.

The banh cuon at Thien Thanh is made fresh in-house everyday, all day long.
The banh cuon at Thien Thanh is made fresh in-house everyday, all day long.
Photo by Cuc Lam

Banh Cuon (bahn-koon)

The first stop takes us to Thien Thanh at 11210 Bellaire in the Universal Shopping Center across the street from the big Hong Kong City Mall. The surroundings are humbling, in fact, most of the places on this list are small, family-owned businesses with daughters, uncles, cousins and grandmas in the front and back-of-house. The original location opened as Banh Cuon Thanh Tri in Dallas suburb, Arlington, in 1995 as a to-go only joint.

The family opened a store in Houston and called it Banh Cuon Thien Thanh and has since sold it. We couldn't get a straight answer about the actual opening, but a source told the Houston Press it may have been 2004.

Thien Thanh is hands-down my favorite place to eat banh cuon, a mixture of ground pork and coarsely-chopped wood-ear mushrooms enveloped inside thin, steamed rice flour crepes, handmade in this kitchen by a staff of elderly ladies. The dish originated in Northern Vietnam, and it's an art to watch them scoop and spread the batter on a mesh that sits atop a stockpot of boiling water, then gently, but quickly, peel each crepe with a single motion of an extra-long wooden stick, similar to a chopstick.

Banh cuon is served with cha lua (steamed Vietnamese pork roll), steamed bean sprouts, chopped cilantro, culantro, fried shallots and nuoc mam pha or muoc nam cham (dipping fish sauce). Don't try to drink from the plastic decanter, with liquid that looks like a light iced tea, that's set on each table. That's the nuoc mam. Once an order is placed, diners will get small sauce bowls. Scoop a little sambal into the bowl and add some of that nuoc mam to the bowl. That's how Thien Thanh lets you manage your own levels of spice. Now pour the mixture on top of the delicious mound of banh cuon on your plate and dig in.

The bun bo hue from Pho Quynh is a perfect alternative for pho when you're craving spice and lots of pork.EXPAND
The bun bo hue from Pho Quynh is a perfect alternative for pho when you're craving spice and lots of pork.
Photo by Cuc Lam

Bun Bo Hue (boon-baw-way)

Inside the 99 Ranch Market at 1005 Blalock is another world of grocery delights and fast food delicacies. Don't be fooled by the "pho" in Pho Quynh; this little place serves a bomb-ass bowl of bun bo hue, a spicy beef and pork noodle dish that hails from the old city of Hue in central Vietnam.

The broth is made with pork bones, pepper flakes, spices, garlic, lemongrass and a friendly dose of fermented shrimp paste. The stock becomes deep red, meaty and flavorful. A thicker round rice noodle is served with each bowl, along with a couple pieces of trotter, thin slices of softened beef shank, pork loin and huyet (congealed pork blood cubes). It is loaded with meats.

Traditionally, the soup is topped with shredded banana blossoms and purple cabbage, thin slices of onion and a plethora of Vietnamese mints. The bun bo hue at Pho Quynh is addictive. Chef Ben McPherson of Krisp Bird & Batter recently caught up with me at the Menu of Menus event to thank me profusely for passing along the recommendation a few months ago.

A couple of other places that do this noodle soup justice is Huynh's, in EaDo at 912 St. Emanuel and Pho Ngon at 10780 Bellaire and Wilcrest in Lion Square.

Pho One's com ga roti comes with a special soy-vinaigrette that is citrusy and delicious.EXPAND
Pho One's com ga roti comes with a special soy-vinaigrette that is citrusy and delicious.
Photo courtesy of Pho One

Com Ga Roti (kohm-gah-row-tee)

This next dish is simple, but not many places get it right. Com ga roti, roasted or rotisserie-style chicken with rice can be found on the menu at most Vietnamese restaurants, but not usually at pho-focused places. That being said, I was beyond happy to find that my local, hop-skip-and-a-jump away pho place has one of the best com ga roti plates in the city.

Pho One at 11148 Westheimer in Westchase, once voted Best Pho by the Press, definitely deserves a nod for its com ga roti. The family-owned restaurant can be found in the shopping center behind the Shell station at Wilcrest and Westheimer. Owner Thanh Lam, his wife, Kim Oanh Vu, and their adult kids share duties in and out of the kitchen.

Cornish hen is slow-roasted and pan-fried for crispiness. Half of the bird is served along with jasmine rice and a salad of greens, thin slices of tomato and pickled onions with a soy-vinaigrette sauce that is outstandingly good. The price is $8.95 and two sunny-side up eggs can be added to the plate for an extra $1.50.

The com ga roti at Pho Nhi is deep-fried instead of roasted and pan-fried.
The com ga roti at Pho Nhi is deep-fried instead of roasted and pan-fried.
Photo by Thao Matcha

I was told by a group of fried chicken aficionados that the com ga roti at Pho Nhi was something special. So I had to check it out— food research is the hardest part of the job. For $7.95, a crispy chicken leg and thigh, seasoned and fried well, accompanies a mound of red-tinted rice. Traditional com ga roti is served with a tomato-ketchup based rice, but this "fried rice" lacked that essence, falling a bit flat. The plate as a whole is a pretty fantastic deal and the chicken was tasty, tender and juicy.

Banh Beo (bahn-bay-oh)

These tiny steamed rice cakes are super fun to eat in bunches. I challenge you to eat just one. Nam Giao is known for some of the best banh beo in the city. Similar to bun bo hue, these cakes originated in the ancient capital city of Vietnam, Hue. Nam Giao serves these in a variety of ways, steamed individually in small sauce bowls, topped with coarsely ground, dried shrimp, scallion oil, and a crunchy thin piece of fried pork belly along with nuoc mam cham.

Nam Giao is located at 6938 Wilcrest near Bellaire, in the same shopping center as Cajun Kitchen. Orders of eight sell for $3.75. Come with a large group and try all of the other great shareable street foods on the menu.

The banh xeo at Thien An is bigger than your face and tastes so good! ($7.25)
The banh xeo at Thien An is bigger than your face and tastes so good! ($7.25)
Photo by Karina Tran

Banh Xeo (bahn-say-oh)

This yellow sizzling crepe gets love, but not the rockstar status of adoration as it deserves. Truly unique to Vietnamese cooking, the banh xeo (literally "sizzling cake"), is made with a wet batter of coconut milk, rice flour, turmeric and chopped scallions. Thien An Sandwiches at 2611 San Jacinto in Midtown is my go-to place to quench the craving for this savory, crispy dish. The crepe is stuffed with pieces of pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.

Measuring a cool 18-inches, it is best enjoyed with a group of friends. This is an eat-with-your-hands kind of food and requires extra napkins. The banh xeo at Thien An impressively arrives on a large platter, along with a separate plate of lettuce, cilantro, mint and a side of nuoc mam cham.

Use the lettuce as a wrap and pinch off a piece of the crepe. Make sure to get the stuffing. Add a few sprigs of fresh mint and cilantro and dip this in the nuoc mam cham. It's okay to double-dip if it's your own bowl of sauce, and trust me, you'll want to come back for a second dip.

The vegetarian bun rieu at San San Tofu is so good you never even miss the meat.EXPAND
The vegetarian bun rieu at San San Tofu is so good you never even miss the meat.
Photo by Erika Kwee

Bun Rieu (boon-ree-ew)

I will probably get a whole lot of flack for my choice of where to find a great bowl of bun rieu, but I gotta go with my tummy. A visit to vegetarian-friendly San San Tofu, 6445 Wilcrest, a couple of years ago opened my eyes to just how delicious this noodle soup could be, even without meat and seafood.

The broth was satisfyingly deep and flavorful. I think instead of the usual pork or seafood broth, San San Tofu is using a mushroom-based, tomato stock. The addition of a ton of fresh herbs and finely shredded cabbage hid the fact that there was not an ounce of meat or seafood protein in the mix. The bowl is served with regular-sized rice vermicelli noodles, tofu clouds (clusters of egg-like tofu) and slices of mushroom.

For a traditional bun rieu, I like the soup at Bo Ne Houston, located at 11169 Beechnut, and fellow Vietnamese food junkies have reported that Cafe TH at 2108 Pease has a spicy crab, pork and tomato soup that is incredibly spot on. Bun rieu is typically served as bun rieu oc, which means the soup includes the meat of snails. I prefer my bun rieu sans snail, but it's good both ways.

Bo Ne Houston is more known for its Vietnamese steak and eggs on a sizzling plate dish, but I like to walk to the beat of my own drum and ventured into noodle soup land a few visits back.  This dive is worth the trip out beyond Chinatown in Alief. A bowl of bun rieu is $7 and $7.50 with the addition of snails.

At Cafe TH, the bun rieu is actually the Friday Special, available every Friday for $4.99 plus tax.

The com tam bi suon cha dish at Thuan Kieu Com Tam is hearty and only $6.25.
The com tam bi suon cha dish at Thuan Kieu Com Tam is hearty and only $6.25.
Photo by Sophia Vu

Com Tam Bi Suon Cha (kohm-tahm-bee-suhn-jah)

This is the king of combination plates in Vietnamese cuisine. Com tam bi suon cha is a broken or crumbled rice dish traditionally served with a marinated, chargrilled pork chop, baked pork and egg cake, and shredded pork skin. But it really doesn't end there. At Thuan Kieu Com Tam, diners can choose from a list of 20 combination plates with a variety of meats and seafood like sugarcane shrimp, chargrilled beef or chicken or Chinese sausage.

Thuan Kieu Com Tam is located in the Lion Square shopping center at 10792 Bellaire. Each combination rice plate is $6.25 and comes with crumbled rice, pickled cabbage and carrots and the proteins that you choose. The menu at Thuan Kieu Com Tam is well-versed in all things Vietnamese. Be forewarned: what they lack in service and attentiveness, they make up for in flavor.

The lemongrass tilapia arrived skin on, filleted, boneless and head-on with a bed of jasmine rice and sautéed greens. ($14)EXPAND
The lemongrass tilapia arrived skin on, filleted, boneless and head-on with a bed of jasmine rice and sautéed greens. ($14)
Photo by Troy Fields

Ca Chien (kah-chee-ing)

A classic Southern Vietnamese dish is a pan-fried fish. I recently had a wonderful representation of ca chien at Maba Pan-Asian at 510 Gray in Midtown. My only gripe was the type of fish cooked (tilapia), but I really couldn't complain too much because I loved every last bite.

Maba prepared it non-traditionally with a lemongrass and spice rub on the inside of the filleted fish rather than directly onto the skin of a scored fish. Maba knocked this one out of the park when it presented the fish on a bed of aromatic com ga (chicken rice).

For another type of traditional ca chien, venture west to Tay Do, located at 2529 Highway 6 South near the West Oaks Mall. The fish is sold at a seasonal market price and can get a bit hefty. The whole fish is deep-fried and presented with nuoc mam cham on top of it.

Le Colonial's Ca Chien Snapper is beautiful. (Market price)EXPAND
Le Colonial's Ca Chien Snapper is beautiful. (Market price)
Photo by Julie Soefer

Le Colonial at 4444 Westheimer in River Oaks District also delivers an outstanding whole-fried fish dish called Ca Chien Snapper. The presentation is gorgeous and the garlic, citrusy glaze on the fish is delightfully tangy.

Ca chien is one of those dishes that I usually prefer to prepare at home, but it's nice to know that there are places in town to get it whenever I don't feel like cooking it myself.

Be brave and skip the pho, the go-to vermicelli bowls and the shaking beef rice plates, for those with a more adventurous palate, take a foodie journey with me to check out these not-as-well-known-to-Westerner favorites, all available in our city by the bayou.

Tell us about other off-the-beaten-Vietnamese-food-track dishes that you've tried. Leave us a note in the comments.

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