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Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Vietnamese Cuisine

There's more to Vietnamese food than pho.
There's more to Vietnamese food than pho.
Photo by Michael Shum

It was only a matter of time before we hit Vietnamese food. The cuisine has become one of Houston's favorite over the last few decades -- coinciding with the large influx of Vietnamese immigrants that began following the Vietnam War -- with dishes such as pho now rivaling cheese enchiladas as sought-out comfort food and banh mi joints rivaling taquerias as reliable spots for a cheap, delicious, filling meal.

As of 2010, Greater Houston held the third largest Vietnamese population in the nation (behind only Los Angeles and San Jose)-- and it's growing quickly. According to the most recent census, the Vietnamese population was the fourth largest among the Asian population groups in the United States, growing faster than the Chinese, Korean or Japanese populations. It grew by 56 percent in Texas alone between 2000 and 2010, as more Vietnamese immigrants settle in Houston and Dallas each year.

The result is a boom in Vietnamese cuisine not just in Chinatown, but throughout the city. Houston in particular has also been the beneficiary of Vietnamese-style crawfish, a fusion phenomenon with its roots in Louisiana, where thousands of immigrants fled following the Fall of Saigon in 1975. But it's not crawfish we're looking at today.

Today, we're covering some of the most basic Vietnamese dishes that you'll encounter across Houston. Some, like the well-known pho, are representative of the northern part of Vietnam. Others, like bun bo Hue, are emblematic of the spice-loving central region of the country. And still more are sweeter, more tropical dishes that are found in the coastal southern part of Vietnam. And all of them are delicious.

Note: Pronunciation guides are included for all of the terms below. To read more about how to pronounce various Vietnamese dishes, check out our sister blog SFoodie's helpful post on the topic or Loving Pho's guide to pronouncing various Vietnamese dishes, names and regions.

Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Vietnamese Cuisine
Photo by stu_spivack

Gỏi cuốn / spring rolls Pronounced: goy coo-un

You know spring rolls: Those soft, bouncy, wiggly rice paper wraps filled with crunchy vegetables, vermicelli noodles and sauteed shrimp or pork. These are typically served with peanut sauce, and one of the most commonly encountered appetizers on any Vietnamese menu -- as well as one of the most accessible.

Cha gio at Phat Ky.
Cha gio at Phat Ky.
Photo by Michael Shum

Chả giò / rice paper egg rolls Pronounced: chah zoh

First off: These aren't really egg rolls. But that's what they look like, only smaller and packed into deep-fried sheets of thin, crispy, crackly rice paper. Cha gio are typically filled with ground pork, mushrooms, carrots and other vegetables, depending on the restaurant. As with many other Vietnamese dishes, there's no "official" recipe (although many of those dishes have become somewhat standardized in America). Dip your cha gio into the fish sauce that accompanies them, or chop them up and toss them with your favorite bun dish.

Nước mắm / fish sauce Pronounced: nook mom

Fish sauce is exactly what it sounds like: a sauce made from fish that have been fermented and then slowly pressed to extract the briny liquid. Basic nuoc mam is usually jazzed up with chiles, lime juice and/or sugar to create other sauces such as nuoc cham, which has a complex flavor that's salty, sour, spicy and sweet (and goes great on top of everything from bun to banh bot chien).

Pho dac biet (special combination pho) at Pho Binh.
Pho dac biet (special combination pho) at Pho Binh.
Photo by Michael Shum

Phở / noodle soup Pronounced: fuh (with a slight upward inflection at the end)

Arguably the most popular Vietnamese dish in Houston, pho -- or rice noodle soup -- is a relatively new dish by Viet standards. Believe it or not, this very Vietnamese dish has Chinese and French roots: Chinese influence in northern Vietnam brought rice noodle and the signature pho spices such as anise, ginger and cinnamon, while French occupation of what was then called "Indochina" encouraged the consumption of beef. Pho is made by boiling animal bones down into a rich stock, then adding in rice noodles, spices, meat and vegetables. Although most pho has a beef base, pho ga (chicken pho) is gaining in popularity. A bowl of pho comes with garnishes and sauces that allow you to customize it to your taste. Typical garnishes include basil, lime, cilantro, jalapeños, crunchy bean sprouts, sweet hoisin sauce and spicy Sriracha. Popular combinations like pho bo vien add spongy beef meatballs to the soup. Pho tai adds thinly sliced rare steak which cooks in the broth and pho nam adds slices of brisket.

Chargrilled pork banh mi with a fried egg at Ba Mien Bistro.
Chargrilled pork banh mi with a fried egg at Ba Mien Bistro.
Photo by Joshua Justice

Bánh mì / French baguette sandwich Pronounced: bahn mee

Though "banh mi" itself simply the Vietnamese term for baguette bread (also introduced by the French), the term has come to be synonymous with baguette-style sandwiches. As with any sandwich, the variations on banh mi are endless but most are garnished with cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon radish, cilantro and jalapeños as well as French-supplied pâté and mayonnaise. In Houston, banh mi range between $2 and $5 each depending on the meat you get inside. Chargrilled pork (thit nuong) is a favorite, while a banh mi dac biet gets you a cold-cut combo.

Bún / vermicelli Pronounced: boon

The same rice vermicelli noodles found in pho are served cool atop a bed of greens (typically shredded lettuce and cucumber) to make sort of a rice noodle salad. Bun is usually topped with hot meat (chargrilled pork is a popular choice) for a nice contrast in textures and temperatures, then tossed with fish sauce and whatever else you decide to jazz it up with. As with pho, hoisin sauce and Sriracha are popular additions.

 

Com tam at Thuan Kieu Com Tam.
Com tam at Thuan Kieu Com Tam.
Photo by Michael Shum

Cơm thịt nướng / chargrilled pork and rice Pronounced: gum tit noon

Com dia refers to a rice plate, while anything after "com" on a menu refers to the type of meat and other toppings that come with the rice. Again, thit nuong is common. But other favorites include ga nuong and bo nuong (chargrilled chicken and beef, respectively) as well as the fancier ga ro ti: a tiny, roasted Cornish game hen. All rice plates also come with nuoc cham to perk up the rice and a bowl of broth laced with garlic and/or scallions to sip between bites of the sticky rice and cleanse the throat.

Bò lúc lắc / grilled beef with garlic, onion and bell peppers Pronounced: buh luke lock

Think of bo luc lac as Vietnamese fajitas. Here in Houston, the marinated beef with grilled peppers and onions is even served on a sizzling comal. Also called "shaking beef," bo luc lac -- typically cuts of beef filet or tenderloin -- has an instantly recognizable flavor profile of garlic and jalapeños. Served on a bed of lettuce, it's a nearly perfect Paleo meal if you're into that thing.

Banh bot chien.
Banh bot chien.
Photo by Michael Shum

Bánh bột chiên / rice flour cake omelet Pronounced: bahn bot chen

Often served as a morning snack or appetizer, ban bot chien is essentially a small omelet containing rectangles of tender rice flour cake, topped with scallions and garlic. As simple as that sounds, presentation can vary widely from restaurant to restaurant and may include turnips and onions among other ingredients. Top it with nuoc mam for an addictive sweet-and-savory treat.

Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH.
Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH.
Photo by Troy Fields

Bánh mì bò kho / beef stew with carrots Pronounced: bahn mee buh koh

If someone brought you a bowl of banh mi bo kho and you didn't know its origins, you may have a hard time guessing it's Vietnamese. This hearty winter stew of beef, carrots and onions in a black pepper-spiced broth could be equally at home on a French or American table, save for the hints of lemongrass and fish sauce in the background. It's served with a crusty hunk of French baguette (the banh mi part) for sopping up the broth when you've finished all the meat and veg.

 

Vietnamese iced coffee.
Vietnamese iced coffee.
Photo by Gary R. Wise

Cà phê sữa đá / iced coffee with milk Pronounced: caf-fay su-ah da (the final "da" is pronounced like "dad" without a "d" at the end

Called "the undisputed king of coffee" by Digest NY, Vietnamese iced coffee truly is a drink of the gods. This isn't ordinary coffee, however. Really good Vietnamese coffee starts with beans roasted in clarified butter. The finely ground beans are steeped in hot water for a slow extraction, and the resulting coffee is much darker and thicker than typical American coffee. Into the hot coffee, sweetened condensed milk is poured -- no sugar required after that shot of creamy goodness -- and the entire affair is then stirred well and poured over ice.

Soda chanh muối / salted lemon soda Pronounced: soda chain moo-ee

Although traditionally made with limes (chanh) pickled in salt, most soda chanh muối found in Houston is made using lemons and amounts to something closer to a salted lemonade soda. The more conventional lemon soda -- or soda chanh, made with club soda and a bunch of freshly squeezed lemons -- forgoes the salt and is a safer bet, but both are refreshing on a muggy day.

Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Vietnamese Cuisine

Sinh tố bơ / avocado shake Pronounced: sin toh boh

Unlike western usage, where avocados are found in savory applications like guacamole, avocados in Vietnam are more often found in desserts and sweets. Avocados grow well in southern Vietnam, sinh to bo is used to beat the heat. It's as simple as pureeing avocado and sweetened condensed milk together, then pouring over crushed ice (although you can also drink it in fluffy smoothie form too). The avocado's flavor isn't the star here, but rather it's silky, creamy texture.

Chè ba màu / sweet bean dessert Pronounced: chay baa mao (the last word is pronounced like "mouse" without the "se")

Like soda chahn, che ba mau is refreshing on a hot day. Like sinh to bo, it's not too sweet. But unlike most American desserts (not counting the miraculous bean pie), it's made with beans. You'll often find it listed on menus as "sweet bean combination with grass jelly and coconut milk," hinting at the dessert's tropical southern Vietnamese roots. Che ba mau means "three colours che" ("che" itself meaning a dessert drink or pudding), referring both to the three colors of beans used in the dessert and the lucky number three. You'll usually find mung beans, black-eyed peas and red azuki or kidney beans in the dessert, and/or gelatin colored green with pandan extract (the "grass jelly" part). It's all mixed up with crushed ice and sometimes served with a coconut milk topping.



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