Restaurant Reviews

Les Ba’Get Vietnamese Café Stands Out for its Attention to Detail

The banh mi: a sandwich whose very ubiquity in Houston might suggest that one is much like another, with only minor differences setting the good apart from the great. This is both true and not true, and the version at Les Ba’Get Vietnamese Café leans toward the latter. A lot of what sets this sandwich apart is very much in the details. Here, it’s a matter of knife work.

It may seem like a small thing, but how the pickled vegetables on a banh mi are cut has a major impact on the pleasure the sandwich brings. Most versions feature finely shredded carrot and daikon, casually stuffed into the sandwich after the meat, along with a fat spear each of jalapeño and cucumber. At Les Ba’Get, the vegetables are shaved into thin planks and stacked along the length of the sandwich, adding their own parallel ply to your protein of choice. Instead of shoving a handful of stem-on cilantro into the sandwich on its way out the door, Les Ba’Get applies a scattering of chopped herbs along the x-axis. Chiles come sliced into wafer-thin wheels, evenly distributed. Where many banh mi constitute a sort of filling lottery, each bite as likely to yield a naked pepper as a mouthful of pork, with the sweet spot of harmony often eluding you from one bite to the next, the careful construction of this sandwich means that every bite brings a bit of everything with it. It’s a detail that is often ill-considered and which, at Les Ba’Get, takes center stage. Details like this pop up across the menu and throughout the space at Les Ba’Get.

The protein fillings in the banh mi add a bit of contemporary flair and a local nod. Some may be tempted to call a barbecue banh mi “fusion,” but it’s more appropriate to consider this melding through the lens of cuisine itself, which often bends to the foodways of an adopted locale while keeping the spirit of the original alive and well. In place of smoky grilled pork, slow-smoked beef seems a pretty obvious swap. That makes it all the more remarkable that this hasn’t already become a standard move in the choreography of Vietnamese food in Houston. I’d prefer that the beef have a more assured smoke flavor, rather than the slightly high and acidic notes I found, but it is tender and defiantly fatty, fitting nicely into the milieu of flavors and textures that make up the banh mi archetype.

The pork belly version rides a similar line, skirting but just missing greatness. The cook on the pork can cut one way or the other. It’s an unabashedly fatty cut of meat, which can result in a sublimely lush filling, especially when the kitchen has been liberal with the fine and funky duck pâté. Then again, when the pork belly’s connective tissue isn’t given enough time to submit, it winds up distractingly textured, a jarring mouthful of rubber bands in the midst of an otherwise perfect bite. I found one of each example on my visits.

The decor is modern; wood slats adorn the walls, adding texture and depth to the small bungalow-cum-restaurant. The ceiling is open to the exposed beams that frame the roofline; hand-finished wood tables fill the room, many of them topped with handmade wooden boxes bearing crisp-crusted sandwiches. Along one wall, artistic black-and-white photographs show scenes from Vietnam. Fabric chandeliers and copper accents lend softness and highlight overhead.

At Les Ba’Get, they know that it’s not just what’s on the plate but how it looks that matters. We eat with our eyes first, as the saying goes, and the plates and bowls here reflect that. Take the rice and noodle bowls (I’m still not sure why the menu language eschews the traditional bun and banh mi in favor of more generic anglicized descriptors), which come presented pinwheel style, each component awarded its own colorful quadrant atop your chosen starch. In their deep, conical vessels, the bowls are enormously enticing.

Apply a bit of garlic-scented fish sauce to breathe extra life into the nutty thrum and pop of anise in the coconut basil shrimp version, and it’s as lovely to eat as it is to look at. A bowl featuring grilled lemongrass pork is nearly as good, suffering, perhaps, from its own good intentions. Rather than thin, heavily char-grilled sheaves of pork, the Les Ba’Get bowl features more generously sliced protein that offers a meatier countenance, but loses out on the visceral thrill of char set against the caramelized glaze from marinade flashed at high heat. The Les Ba’Get version also swaps the more common (and fattier) pork shoulder out in favor of lean tenderloin, trying to provide a more “prestigious” cut. But I’d rather that intensity of flavor — and the slightly tougher chew — than what I’m guessing is an attempt at refinement.

That lack of a high heat sear is my only quibble with the steak and eggs, part of Les Ba’Get’s all-day breakfast menu. For all its sizzling platter action, the plate doesn’t show much in the way of charred beef. Still, the meat is sweet and meltingly tender, an edge of garlic perking it up. Cut a path through the frizzle-fried egg, its rich yolk spreading slowly, swipe the beef through it and deposit the richly sticky mess on a slip of crusty bread, cut on a tight bias and slathered in fatty bone-marrow butter and heady pâté. A scattering of cilantro lifts the rich, funky flavors. It’s alarmingly good, enough to make me momentarily forget I’d wanted a bit of crust on that meat.

The breakfast menu at Les Ba’Get is certainly one of the things that set it apart. It reads like modern American brunch with French and Vietnamese flair. Try the pandan coconut milk Belgian waffle served with fish-sauce-marinated fried chicken and green tea syrup.

It’s harder to get more “Brunch 2016” than chicken and waffles, and Les Ba’Get’s version is worthy. Though my portion of chicken came out significantly darker than I’d have liked, the bitter taste of burn just starting to creep in, the flesh beneath was moist and flavorful, and the battered skin supremely crispy.

As for that pandan coconut milk waffle, it requires few if any caveats. I would, perhaps, have liked a bit more crispness on the exterior, but the crumb inside was so delightfully fluffy, so shockingly green, so hauntingly aromatic that any quibble was quickly silenced by the satisfied sound of chewing. The serve-yourself jar of flatware on our table bore no forks, but that didn’t prevent our party from ripping into the waffle by hand, dunking strips of it into the arresting green tea syrup, its vegetal and slightly oceanic nuance proving a perfect, echoing foil for the graceful intrigue of the waffle.

The ham and egg croissant is a glorious mess. Two fried eggs (one, in my serving, perfect, one with a sadly hard yolk) slip and slide atop folded layers of Vietnamese ham that seems as if it has had sweet soy grilled into it, buoyed by thin slabs of pickled carrot and daikon, along with more of those wafer-wheels of jalapeño. The bright, fresh crunch of the vegetables plays nicely against the salty slick punch of the ham, and the croissant is nicely flaky.

I wish I could say the same for the pâté chaud & bacon gravy. The puff pastry UFO is flaky on top, but undercooked and dense inside, swimming in a moat of overly gloppy gravy whose flavor lists into muddy waters, amorphous and unconvincing. Despite its faults, the concept lands at the intersection of chicken pot pie and biscuits and gravy, which is a place I’d like to revisit. The filling of pork and onions is sweet and savory with a really keen edge of black pepper. I like it, but it’s not what it could be.

The pho at Les Ba’Get is fine. The “24 hour broth” is sweet and rich and clean. It tastes clearly of beef, charred sweet onions, star anise and scallion, each lining up in the proper order. You get your choice of meats, as at most Vietnamese spots. The fatty brisket is beefy and yielding, falling apart in tender chunks as you pluck each slice. Translucent slips of tendon offer a delightful chew, finding that sweet spot between Jell-O and gummy bears and bringing more beefy flavor than you might expect.The filet is already mostly cooked by the time your bowl arrives, thin slices stacked together like playing cards. This robs it of a bit of its rosy tenderness, but it’s still a fine bowl of soup. Adders of marrow in a small, scalding-hot stone bowl add to the richness. The same can be said of the sidecar of poached egg yolk, which came as my surprise favorite, topping even the marrow for its less distracting addition of oomph. The noodles are a bit clumped in the bottom of the bowl, but pull apart into manageable tangles, showing a bit of resilience even to the bottom.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if Les Ba’Get’s attention is focused on the right details. The space is welcoming, the food presented with care and a good eye. Some of it is very good, some of the time. If the attention shifts, focusing on the details of execution as much as presentation, with a more consistent result, Les Ba’Get will be a worthy contender, not so much raising the bar as shifting what the bar means in the first place.

Les Ba’Get Vietnamese Café 
1717 Montrose, 832-548-1080, Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Steak and eggs $12.95
Chicken and waffle (Friday-Sunday only) $11.95
Pâté chaud and bacon gravy $8.95
Ham and egg croissant $7.95
24-hour sous vide pork belly baguette $6.50
Oak-smoked brisket baguette $6.75
Beef noodle soup (pho) $9.75
— Side of bone marrow $4.50
— Side of poached egg $1.25
Lemongrass pork tenderloin bowl (noodles or rice) $9.25
Coconut basil shrimp bowl (noodles or rice) $10.95
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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall