Les Ba’get, the new brick-and-mortar by the owners of the now-retired Les Ba’get gourmet food truck, is the contemporary Vietnamese restaurant that Houston has been waiting for.
At just 1,450 square feet, it’s small, but you know that saying about good things coming in small packages? It definitely applies here. “I wanted to break away from that stereotype of Vietnamese food being low quality and cheap,” says Cat Huynh, the 36-year-old self-taught chef and owner of Les Ba’get. “I wanted to bring better quality, and increase the standard, add better-quality meat, fresh, locally sourced produce, better presentation. Quality means a lot. I want to bring my art to Montrose and Houston.”
When you step through the doors and see what he’s done with the space inside, it’s easy to see what he means. When Huynh found the location about a year ago, he sold his food truck so that he could focus on the buildout, gutting everything and basically building the cafe from the ground up.
“We started from scratch,” says Huynh’s wife and partner, Angie Dang. “We just kept the frame. He put in the plumbing, a brand-new kitchen — he did almost everything himself.” That includes the woodwork on the walls; the sliding door that leads to the restroom; the custom-made, hand-finished wood-topped tables, which all bear the Les Ba’get logo; the small wooden boxes that he made to hold his banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches; and the wall art, made up of framed black and white photographs of scenes from Vietnam.
A poster-size sepia-toned photo of his mother, which Huynh Photoshopped to make it look like the front of a magazine cover, has particular significance. “That photo is of my mom when she was probably 15 or 16 years old in Saigon. I took the picture and played around with it to make it more vintage, like the cover of a magazine. There's her name, Song Thoa. Seventy-two was the year it was taken; "La Tho Tinh" means "love letter" — she was writing a love letter to my dad. She's one of my inspirations — she's been supporting me and everything we've done, so I just wanted to do that to let her know how much we appreciate her," Huynh says.
Huynh's hard work has resulted in a cozy, neighborhood-friendly, 40- to 50-seat cafe (there is additional seating on the patio) with natural woodwork on the walls, tastefully chosen hanging chandeliers, dark-colored metal chairs and exposed beam ceilings. There are only eight parking spots, but that hasn’t stopped people from coming.
“We opened our doors last week, without any advertising or promoting. We’ve had a steady stream of customers who just walk here from around the neighborhood. We’ve even had some repeat customers already,” he says.
After one bite of the Les Ba’get 24-hour sous vide pork belly banh mi, I already know that I'll be among those many repeat customers. Les Ba’get is a play on the French les baguettes (which means French bread), so I was expecting a really good sandwich. What I got was better than that. It was a banh mi so well constructed, delicious and beautifully presented that it immediately set the bar not just in terms of the best banh mi in Houston (which I’d argue that it is right now), but for one of the best sandwiches you can find in this city at the moment.
It was presented in two halves standing upright, with an optional fried egg on top of one half of it, and I picked up the half without the egg first. Now, the pork belly might be fattier than some people might want, so if you’re the type who goes for lean chicken or meat, do not get this sandwich. For those who appreciate a good, moist barbecue, or a nice piece of juicy rib eye, or who just light up at the thought of a decadent pork belly, you’re gonna be in seventh heaven.
The bread, baked fresh daily using Huynh’s proprietary recipe, is toasted to provide that crusty crunch element, but it’s not overly doughy or thick. The Vietnamese pickled cucumber and daikon and carrots are not shredded, but thinly sliced sheets that sit flush with the generously packed slices of pork belly, ensuring that you get the same ratio of pickled veg and meat and bread in each bite. For condiments, you’ve got a generous smear of house-made truffled garlic aioli mixed in with an earthy house-made pâté. And then there’s the meat, tinged with Vietnamese spices, soft and unctuous and melt-in-your-mouth splendid. I mean, talk about wow.
The Vietnamese steak and eggs, served on a sizzling oblong platter with not one but two crispy on the bottom, masterfully fried eggs and two slices of just-toasted baguette smeared with bone marrow butter pâté, are another out-and-out winner. Vietnamese restaurants will often top their steak and eggs with a large amount of gravy, which can mask the quality of the meat they serve. Here, Huynh uses lemongrass-marinated, thinly sliced tenderloin in a manner reminiscent of Korean bulgogi, adding a few slices of Chinese lap cheong sausage for an added boost of flavor. I cut the egg in half, swiped up some of the oozing yolk with the toasted baguette, then topped with a few slices of the beef before taking a bite that will definitely be winning many more hearts than just mine.
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Dang says that the Vietnamese steak and eggs are part of their all-day breakfast menu, which includes a very interesting-sounding pandan coconut milk Belgian Vietnamese chicken and waffle. Other menu sections include the “Spring Rolls & Egg Rolls” appetizer section; a section of “Noodles and Rice,” where customers can choose a protein with a steamed white rice plate or choice of rice vermicelli noodles; nine choices of "Sandwiches and Croissants," which ranges from pork belly we tried to a Texas-themed oak-smoked brisket or a vegetarian lemongrass grilled tofu; and a build-your-own "Pho" beef noodle soup section, where you can customize the toppings you want to go with Huynh’s 24-hour beef broth (you can even order a bowl of bone marrow on the side).
For drinks, Les Ba'get offers a selection of local craft beer like Karbach and Saint Arnold, house-brewed pandan soy milk, fresh coconut juice, teas, and Vietnamese coffee and iced coffee made from locally roasted beans, which the restaurant plans to package and sell by the bag. And hooray for wine drinkers, because you can BYOB wine with no corkage fee.
Les Ba'get is located at 1717 Montrose and is currently in its "soft opening" stages from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (closed Monday). The restaurant offers counter service. For more information, visit lesbaget.com.