My third visit to Kim Tai Restaurant was my favorite one. I sat at one of the smaller tables while the owners' family and friends drank iced beer (a popular way to drink it in Vietnam), watched soccer on a plasma TV, talked really loud and laughed even louder. By now the mother and daughter had begun to recognize me, and the father shook my hand when he saw me.
I was enjoying a cold Heineken and a double-meat cheeseburger with fries that tasted uncannily like a Big Mac. I mean, it really did. The melted American cheese food had blended with the meat and sesame bun to create a flavor so similar, I did a double take. I pulled the bun apart to see if there was special sauce on it, but there was just mayonnaise on the top bun and mustard on the bottom. I think this is a good thing.
On every visit I made to Kim Tai, I ordered egg rolls — including at breakfast. Obviously made on the premises with a blend of shrimp, pork and onions, they are delicious. The egg roll skin is thin and extra-crispy and holds in all the flavors of the ground meat. The fish-sauce concoction that comes with the rolls is clouded with bits of lime segment. Before trying Kim Tai, I'd never seen it like this. On a previous visit, I asked our server, also the owner's daughter, about the lime. She just shrugged and said, "Yeah, we just peel the skin off and squeeze it." I finished my burger and ordered a Vietnamese sandwich with pâté and ham to go. I just couldn't get enough.
Kim Tai Restaurant
2602 Fannin, 713-652-0644.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Breakfast #1 combo meal: $4.95
Com ga nurong hot ga: $6.95
Lunch combo meal #4: $6.25
Special fried rice: $6.95
Combination pho: $6.95
Vermicelli with char-grilled pork and egg rolls: $6.95
French coffee with condensed milk, iced: $2.25
Kim Tai is a diner first and a Vietnamese restaurant second. It has all the classics, like vermicelli and spring rolls, along with plenty of rice dishes and pho. Pho is to a Vietnamese restaurant what chili is to a roadside diner: comfort food. Diner food. On each visit, I felt very comfortable in this cozy restaurant.
The owner has been cooking in this building for 26 years. She raised her kids here. Now they prep the food, wait on the tables and answer my stupid questions, like, what is the brown liquid on the counter in the glass jar?
My first visit to Kim Tai was with my daughter to meet up with a friend who'd claimed to be a regular. He said this was his favorite Vietnamese restaurant in town. I ordered egg rolls to start. He ordered spring rolls and the vermicelli with charcoal pork. The spring rolls were packed full of meat, shrimp, vermicelli and a tiny amount of vegetables, and their rice paper wrappers were chewy and sticky. This vermicelli dish is one of my all-time favorites, and this was an excellent rendition. I loved the different textures of the chewy pork and the tender noodles with all fresh cilantro mixed into it and the tangy sweetness of the fish sauce.
The owner behind the '50s-style counter asked what I wanted to order. I knew I was getting pho, I just wasn't sure which one. She suggested the combination pho. When she asked if I wanted a large order, I felt like I had to say yes. The owner pointed her finger at my friend and said, "He always gets rock and roll beef." He really is a regular.
I ordered the special fried rice with pork, shrimp and chicken for my daughter. She loves to throw rice all over the table and floor. I always like to order rice for her whenever I think she wants to eat a thousand of something.
My pho arrived at the table, and it was a gigantic bowl of love. The murky gray beef broth was steaming, with large chunks of meat floating around the noodles. It was served with a plate of traditional garnishes, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeños, lime wedges, cilantro and a stalk of purplish Thai basil.
I took a big sip of the hot broth and forced a wad of hot noodles and steak into my mouth, slurping up all the goodness. I took a few bites of cilantro and finished with a jalapeño slice. Then I grab a meatball floating around in the salty broth and chased it with some bean sprouts. The blend of textures and flavors played well off of each other. The slightly chewy steak fell apart in my mouth, and it combined well with the hot, salty broth, soft noodles, crunchy sprouts, cilantro and hot jalapeños. I repeated this process several times before I became full. The large pho was way too much food. It was definitely coming home with me.
The fried rice was hackneyed but full of big chunks of meat and seafood. The owner asked if I wanted a sno-cone on the house. Of course I accepted, and she handed me a waxed paper cone filled with dark-red crushed ice. We shoved the corn syrup and ice into my daughter's mouth, and she loved it. Now she had a big red clown mouth and several kernels of fried rice smashed into her hair.
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I asked my friend if he wanted to go to breakfast, and he said, "Sure, where?" When I said Kim Tai Vietnamese Restaurant, I got a look of bewilderment: "Breakfast at a Vietnamese restaurant?" Kim Tai has a few breakfast offerings, like eggs, toast, hash browns, sausage patties and bacon. There are hamburger patties with fried eggs. Coffee comes brewed or Vietnamese-style, with Café du Monde and condensed milk on ice.
I ordered the combo meal No. 1 with Vietnamese coffee and a side of egg rolls. My companion passed on the traditional breakfast choices and ordered com ga nurong hot ga, a whole char-grilled chicken leg with steamed rice and a fried egg on top. It looked awesome and tasted scrumptious. My combo breakfast with egg rolls on the side was classic — straight-up diner-style. It was perfect with the out-of-this-world coffee and the totally addictive egg rolls. I could barely finish my plate, and the more iced Vietnamese coffee I drank the faster I started talking.
Ever since Mai's burned to the ground, I'd been looking for someplace to satisfy my pho cravings — a place where I could sit, drink a couple of cold beers and chow down on vermicelli with egg rolls and charcoal pork. I think I've found it at Kim Tai. The only drawback is that it isn't open all night. But I think the breakfast and burger option is a fair trade-off.
Kim Tai is open seven days a week, and the atmosphere is way better than Mai's ever was. The staff is friendly; no turn-'em-and-burn-'em service here. Every time I walk in, I feel like I have been coming here for years. But I have just discovered how incredibly wonderful this little Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall is. If you go to Kim Tai, make sure you ask your server about that brown liquid in the glass jar on the counter. The answer to that mystery is something you should discover for yourself.