I love my friends, not only because they're wonderful people, but also because I can learn from them. Most importantly, I learn the best places to go eat. So, when I asked where the best bánh mì sandwiches were to be found, I was pointed to Nguyen Ngo.
I was prepared to drive to Chinatown, but after a Google search, I discovered there was no need. Nguyen Ngo has a second, younger sibling in Northwest Houston off of Veterans Memorial and Bammel N. Houston. That's only 20 minutes from my house, as opposed to the 40 minutes it would have taken me to drive to the first location.
The original location on Bellaire has gotten plenty of accolades, including the award for Best Bánh Mì in the 2011 Houston Press Best of Houston edition. Little has been said about the second store, so we went to check it out to see if it would hold up to the rave reviews of the original.
The restaurant is small, but clean and rather cute, with dark purple walls. A modern-looking glass pastry case sat next to the front counter. Based on the photos I've seen of the original Nguyen Ngo, I'd bet this one is a step up in atmosphere.
We walked in and were looking at the menu board when a friendly young gentleman named Alex greeted us. He was enthusiastic about the beef steak bánh mì. I already had my heart set on bánh mì đặc biệt, the "house special."
Bánh mì đặc biệt can have any combination of meats the restaurant decides will make a good sandwich. In this case, Nguyen Ngo has two combo recommendations: "French style," with pâté, chicken, French ham, and French sausage, or "Vietnamese style", with pâté, chicken, cured pork roll and Vietnamese ham. We went for Vietnamese style. We also got one with thịt nướng (Vietnamese-style barbecued pork) and the beef steak that Alex recommended.
Once our order was in, two ladies got to work and made them right there behind the front counter.
Nguyen Ngo 2 also carries pastries from LeDuc Gourmet Bakery & Café. The dark chocolate covered hemisphere of Sacher torte was calling out to me, and we got a mocha rum cake to go with it.
The grand total for all of this stuff, including the pastries, was a mere $28.96 even after tax (but before tip). Sandwiches with four meats are only $3.50. Beat that, Subway.
We gathered up our booty and took it home, as we had hungry young adults waiting there. We unwrapped our sandwiches and took a look. I noticed the shredded carrots were a dull orange. I tasted them alone and decided they had just been lightly pickled in rice vinegar with a wee bit of sugar. I prefer mine more tart, but they were fine. Sprigs of cilantro and oblong slices of jalapeño were laid on top of the fillings. Daikon was listed as a topping on their menu, but none was to be found on these. Perhaps they were out that day.
The bread (extremely important, as bánh mì actually means "wheat bread") was just about perfect. Sometimes, bánh mì can be so crusty and hard that it can hurt the roof of your mouth. Not in this case. It was soft enough that it easily squished down a bit, but firm enough to hold its shape and contents.
Other than the missing daikon and the lackluster carrots, my only complaint about the bánh mì đặc biệt was that it seemed rather light on meat. It was an intriguing combination of meaty flavors, but there just wasn't enough there to get an impact. About a quarter-inch higher layer would do the job.
On the other hand, it's hard to bitch about the level of meat on a $3.50 sandwich. Next time, I might just order a đặc biệt and pay the downright cheap 25 cents extra to double-up on the rich pâté or the pork roll.
I can see why Alex recommended the beef steak sandwich. It was by far our favorite. Philadelphia, meet Vietnam. Unlike the other bánh mì sandwiches we had picked up, this one had a generous amount of meat and lots of sweet sautéed onions. The creamy mayonnaise brought everything together into luscious cohesion, while the bread added the necessary texture and kept it all from becoming a mess. This is a crave-able sandwich I will be going back for.
The barbecue pork bánh mì was the middle-of-the-road one. We found it more enjoyable and generous than the đặc biệt combos, but it was really nothing special. The pork was the typical, slightly sweet rendition that you could find almost anywhere in Chinatown. No surprises here.
As far as the pastries went, the Sacher torte was good, and we enjoyed the dark chocolate flavor, but it needed more substance and deviated from expectations. A traditional Sacher torte has more cake and less mousse, as well as some type of fruit spread in between the layers, like apricot or raspberry jam. The mocha rum cake had a similar issue; soft because of the whipped cream frosting and mousse filling, but no detectable rum flavor. I don't think I'd get these again. They're beautiful, but once you know what these desserts can be like, it is hard to accept anything less, even at $3 each.
This area may be the next "Chinatown," which, as others have noted, is a misnomer. "Chinatown" has great Chinese, Vietnamese, Viet-Cajun, Thai, Mongolian and Mexican. To call it Chinatown is a limiting and misleading description, but we just haven't come up with a better one that has caught on yet.
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In the area roughly bordered by the triangle formed by FM 1960, Veterans Memorial and I-45, there is great Mexican, Vietnamese and Pakistani to be found. (Go a bit farther south towards the Heights to find good barbecue.) Nguyen Ngo 2 is an unearthed gem that I know about now, but there are plenty of others to be found for those who are willing to seek. As we were driving up Veterans towards the shop, on our left was a brand new bánh mì place that didn't even have a sign yet, just a banner. I think we'll have to go check it out soon.
Nguyen Ngo is located at 14015 Bammel North Houston Road, 281-895-8998. We were told you are welcome to phone in your order ahead of time for pickup.