It's a bad sign when the server greets you with an apology. He apologized for not coming out to take our drink orders sooner; we'd been there about ten minutes when he finally asked. He was sorry that the restaurant was so busy, though there were plenty of empty tables inside and out. He was penitent that he forgot to bring us free shrimp chips — the Vietnamese version of chips and salsa — to keep us occupied while we waited. He continued to offer excuses throughout the hour-and-a-half wait for our dinner and when the burger came out well done instead of medium and when the spicy lemongrass tofu wasn't at all spicy. He didn't need to beg our pardon for the bill, which was shockingly low for the amount of food we'd eaten, but when the receipts were signed and the last dregs of beer in our glasses were downed, we were left somewhat befuddled. This is the hip new Heights hot spot?
Since it opened last July, Hughie's Tavern & Vietnamese Grille has been getting praise from diners and critics alike for its funky atmosphere, extensive craft beer list and big-as-Texas banh mi sandwiches. It's a unique blend of bar, Vietnamese restaurant and Southern food dive offering everything from fried chicken tenders to bo luc lac (shaking beef) and all the expected and exotic craft beer in between. When you aren't sure whether you want dumplings or a burger, but you know you want booze, Hughie's is the place to go.
Unless, of course, both the Vietnamese and the Southern offerings fall a little short.
1802 West 18th, 713-869-1830. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Sunday, private parties only.
Vietnamese eggrolls $6
Banh mi $5
"Banh mi" burger $8
Country fried steak $12
Shaking beef $12
Spicy lemongrass tofu $8
Side egg roll $2
The country fried steak (a.k.a. chicken-fried steak), something about which I'd heard rave reviews, came to the table smothered in gravy. I have no preference about gravy on the side versus on top, so that wasn't the issue. The problem was that the gravy had congealed. Rather than being rich and runny, it was covered with a film that caused it to lift off the steak with one prod of a fork. The steak itself was tough, though the batter was crisp and flavorful. When ordered with sides of garlic mashed potatoes and a fried egg roll, it was a fusion-style dish, a melting pot, indicative of the diverse culinary sensibilities of Houston itself. It's just a shame it didn't do justice to the wonderful Southern food available throughout the city.
Hughie's gets points for things like batter — thick and crunchy and worthy of picking up and eating by itself as it crumbles off chicken tenders — and for classic Vietnamese dishes like egg rolls filled with pickled veggies and the decadent chile peanut dipping sauce that comes with nem nuong (spring rolls). But for every hit, there's a big ol' miss. No matter how inexpensive it is, waiting an hour and a half for an overcooked burger topped with Vietnamese-style veggies doesn't get me excited about the culinary diversity that Houston brings together.
It just makes me hungry.
It's not really a surprise that things don't seem to be running smoothly in the kitchen at Hughie's. The owner, Peter Hoang, wasn't in the restaurant industry before he opened Hughie's. He just likes food. His brother Thinh is the manager and cook, and though the two clearly have some recipe know-how, getting the food from conception to reality can be a bumpy road.
Part of the issue is size. Hughie's is housed in a former Dairy Queen, though the only thing that might indicate the building's previous tenant is the signature shape of the sign out front that now bears the Hughie's name. It's a small space — a full-fledged restaurant housed in a fast-food shell — and though the tavern-esque interior isn't annoyingly crowded with tables, the kitchen seems unable to keep up with the customer demand in a timely fashion. Nearly a year after opening, Hughie's is still figuring it out.
If you can get past the service and occasional food issues, though, it's a fun place to hang out. It's unlike any other spot in Timbergrove, where the restaurants tend to be safe and unchallenging and the few bars are heavy on cheap beer and pub food. Hughie's is something of an amalgamation of all these things with better beer and Vietnamese food sprinkled in. The dim interior is decorated with wood paneling and dozens of tap handles, true to the tavern part of the name. There's a small patio out front that's beautiful on a cool, breezy evening, in spite of the loud traffic whizzing by on West 18th Street.
This pretty patio was the setting for each of my three long meals at Hughie's, and when the food and drinks finally did arrive, each time in fits and spurts, they definitely weren't all bad. During my marathon dinner with friends, we found ourselves fighting over the egg rolls — perfectly crisp and hot on the outside and bursting with fresh pickled carrots and cucumber on the inside. We were so taken with the Vietnamese egg rolls, like meatless banh mi in a crunchy fried wrapper, that we each ordered a side of one to go with our meal.
The dumplings are equally as good, tiny in size but filled with juicy pork and steamed vegetables and served with a chile-lime-soy dipping sauce that I considered downing like a shot because it was so delicious. For the record, I did not, and I'm glad, because I needed it later.
My friends gave me a hard time for ordering tofu off the meat-heavy menu of steaks and chicken tenders and fried seafood. I later found myself thinking they were right, since the tofu was virtually flavorless. I know, I know, soybean cubes are inherently mild and are intended to take on the flavors of whatever they're mixed with, be that lemongrass or chiles or even soy sauce. In this case, the "flame broiled" tofu didn't appear ever to have been near a flame. It was mushy and coated in red pepper flakes and bits of charred lemongrass that didn't do much to enhance the flavor. The gingery vinaigrette dressing on the salad served with it was delicious, though, so I dipped each piece of tofu into that and the chile-lime-soy sauce in an attempt to make the dish a little more interesting.
This was perhaps the worst of the Vietnamese dishes I've sampled at Hughie's. The shaking beef I tried for lunch on a different visit was the best. It was actually more like shocking beef, as I was surprised by how tender and juicy it was after the failure of the country fried steak to live up to my expectations. It's marinated the same day it's prepared and stir-fried in a hot wok with slices of onion and gloriously plump cloves of garlic, infusing every bite with a hint of sweetness from the caramelized allium plants. With a scoop of rice to soak up all the juice, and a side salad, it's a steal at $12.
The prices at Hughie's are its most redeeming quality, aside from the huge beer selection, which, the owner told our own John Kiely, is lengthened anytime someone requests a beer he doesn't have. And for the selection and the neighborhood, the beer is a great value. So, too, is the banh mi, whose $5 price tag may initially cause people to recoil (it's half that in Midtown) until they see the size of the thing.
It's quite possibly the biggest banh mi in Houston, and if you order two of them, they're only $8 for two. The bread is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, and it's packed with pickled daikon, carrot and cucumber. A few slices of fresh green jalapeño add heat, while a smear of mayo cools it down. The meat can be hit-or-miss, depending on when you're dining, but when it's on, it's really on. The grilled pork is thin and nicely charred, as is the beef. Neither is overly marinated, allowing the flavor of the meat to be the star of the show. For a real treat, order the "specialty" banh mi with sliced pork, pâté and Vietnamese ham, which is a sort of sausage made of lean pork and potato starch. It's much tastier than it looks.
Unfortunately for an earnest place like Hughie's, looks can be deceiving. To an outside observer, the place seems to have everything going for it. The decor is fun and inviting, somewhere between a pub and a bistro, and the beer selection makes me want to camp out on the front patio for hours and while away my evening over Brooklyn Summer Ale and a banh mi. And it's darn cheap.
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I just wish the food were as consistent as the perfect froth on my pint of Brown Buffalo Rye'd. No matter how inexpensive the price tag, I can't seem to justify waiting hours for a weeknight dinner only to walk away vowing to fill up on craft beer should I return in the future. Craft beer and perhaps a banh mi, if the kitchen seems to be on top of things that day.
Of course, the crowds tell a different story, one of people happy to have a slice of the food and drink that make Houston great in a largely residential and fast-food-occupied neighborhood, away from the hustle and bustle of Midtown beer joints and Chinatown traffic. It may not be the best Vietnamese food in town, nor the best Southern food, but Hughie's is winning over Houstonians with sheer charm and a sincerity not often found in the cutthroat restaurant industry.
So, apology accepted, Hughie's. You're too cute for me to stay mad at you. But next time, I want shrimp chips while I wait.