Empire of the Son
Given a choice between a small family-run restaurant or gravitational-pull establishment like Kim Son, I tend to float toward -- breaking all known laws of physics in the process -- the mom-and-pop eatery. Besides, when an empire grows as powerful as Kim Son (four locations! 182 items on the regular menu! seating capacity greater than the Astrodome!), one begins to worry about quality control. It is a historical fact, after all, that empires can expand far too much for their own good. Despite my trepidation regarding imperialistic restaurants, I decided to visit Kim Son central, the mothership at 2001 Jefferson, to see if indeed the empire was crumbling.
I was, in a word, humbled. The food at Kim Son is, with the exception of very few lapses, exemplary and as fine an example of Asian cooking as I've had in Houston.
We started with the Kim Son sampler ($8.50), a combination of two spring rolls, two Vietnamese egg rolls and three steamed dumplings. The spring rolls were the least interesting, a bit dry and not as sprightly as others I've had around town (although the accompanying peanut sauce was wonderfully rich and flavorful). The egg rolls were a definite step up the culinary ladder, fried to a greaseless turn, ready to be wrapped in lettuce with sprigs of cilantro and basil, then dipped in a flawless, light nuoc cham dipping sauce. The pinnacle of the platter was, surprisingly, the steamed dumplings. I say surprisingly because I've never met a dumpling that wasn't even better fried, but these were perfection. Delicate skins surrounding an intensely flavored pork filling, the dumplings were wonderful as is, but heavenly dipped in sauce.
As for the entrées, the only disappointment was Kim Son's signature dish, Kua Rang Muoi (black pepper crab, $11.95). I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the world's best at dismantling crabs served in their shells. I usually end up staring frustrated at the heavily armored creatures (thank God for soft shells!), but even the professional shuckers in my party agreed that for the amount of work required, there just wasn't enough crabmeat to make it worthwhile. More worthwhile, though, was the black pepper sauce. Rich, spicy and chunky with vegetables (and in my case, bits of crab shell), the sauce offered a welcome excuse for licking my fingers clean.
It was clear sailing from there, though. When discussing the grilled items with our waiter, he suggested Triple Delight ($12.95), an off-the-menu dish of marinated and grilled beef, shrimp and chicken. They arrive on the platter with little cakes of steamed rice vermicelli. Select your meat, and some vermicelli, wrap them in lettuce with fresh herbs for garnish, and enjoy what is probably the original fajita. All the meats are good, but the chicken is the best -- big chunks of dark meat that are nicely crusty on the outside but still juicy and delicious.
It was a new item on the menu, though, that blew us all away. Listed under the heading of Non an Choi (menu translation: "classic but unique dishes"), the plate is called Ga Xoi Mo Xoi Chien, but is more commonly known as roasted cornish hen ($7.25). As good as any Peking duck I've had, this bird, its meat moist and skin meltingly crisp, is served with slightly sweet, fried rice cakes and a honey-garlic sauce. The sauce alone is worth the trip to Kim Son; dark and rich, it's a perfect balance of sweet, salt and garlic. All together, the hen, rice cakes and sauce provide a symphony of flavors and textures. It's an unforgettable eating experience. In fact, I'd match this dish against almost anything I've eaten in any Houston restaurant.
Even after that epiphany, I was still able to marvel at several more dishes. The Canh Ga Chien Bo ($7.25) was a high-cholesterol treat. Chicken wings are fried in a light tempura batter, then drizzled -- well, okay, completely coated -- with garlic butter. Under normal conditions, fried food with garlic butter might seem a bit gross and unseemly, but if eaten delicately with chopsticks, the wings fly in the most civilized way. They're quite tasty, too.
A tad healthier choice is Do Bien Xao Sot Cay (Mekong Seafood Delight, $10.50), another new item on the menu. It's a combination of shrimp, scallops and squid, sautéed with scallions, garlic and sweet onions in a spicy basil sauce. And although the dish contained far more squid than anything else, that didn't bother me, and in fact I barely even noticed the imbalance, because the squid was so tender and sweet and good, particularly in combination with the sauce.
I should make a confession here: Even though we ordered approximately twice as much food as the rules of propriety and civility allow (they had to pull over an extra table for the overflow platters), the wonderful waitstaff didn't bat an eye -- even when we ended up finishing nearly everything we ordered.
I have another confession: One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes is lemongrass tofu. I like it so much that I couldn't resist ordering Kim Son's version, despite the fact that I was already full and that we were swimming in a sea of plates at our table(s). I'm glad I gave in to temptation. The Dau Hu Xao Xa Ot ($7.25) was perhaps the best rendition of the dish that I've ever had. The firm chunks of fried tofu rest in a spicy lemongrass scented with a golden-brown sauce. If you still think you don't like tofu, try this. It will make a believer out of you.
In a token nod to dietary concerns, we also tried one vegetable dish, Dau Que Xao Cay (green beans sautéed with chopped water chestnuts in a spicy, tangy sauce [$6.50]). They were good, but, well, they were just green beans.
As we walked out of the restaurant, stuffed and satisfied, I was halfway across the parking lot before I realized that I'd forgotten about dessert, an oversight that doesn't happen often, trust me. I decided to wait for another time. After all, I still have approximately 170 other dishes to try.
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