The tempura softshell crab (#272) at Que Huong on Wilcrest is one of the wildest Vietnamese seafood dishes I've come across in years. The naked crab is battered and deep-fried, then cut up into sections, each of which includes some of the juicy body meat and some of the crispy legs or claws.
The tempura crab comes to the table on a pile of romaine lettuce leaves with a plate of garnishes and a sweet and hot dipping sauce on the side. To eat it, you wrap a hot crunchy crab section in a cold lettuce leaf with some fresh herbs and cucumber, spritz it with lime juice and then dunk it in some sauce. The next thing you know, you've got a crunchy riot going hot and cold all over your mouth.
The sweet dipping sauce was lame, so I switched over to the funky fish sauce concoction that came with the Vietnamese egg rolls (#004). My dining companion and I alternately wrapped the hot crunchy egg rolls and the delectable softshell crab pieces into our lettuce leaf tacos and devoured both plates.
For an entrée, we split an order of pan-fried noodles topped with spicy beef and snow pea leaves (#063). The pan-fried noodles at Que Huong (pronounced WAY HONG) are outstanding. When they fry up a mess of these double-wide rice noodles, the top stays loose and the bottom gets crispy and chewy. It's a wonderful noodle dish. The problem is finding the right topping.
We sampled the "Combination Style" pan-fried noodles (#059) on another occasion. My dining companions were grossed out by the thin slices of liver and fish balls in that topping. That sauce also contained chunks of pork, pieces of chicken, broccoli florets, carrots and shrimp. It ended up looking like a plate of generic Chinese food.
The tender strips of spicy beef and delicate snow pea shoots stir-fried with a little garlic on good old #063, on the other hand, were the dream topping for these noodles. Who could pass on lightly fried greens and hearty pieces of beef tossed together in a spicy sauce?
Our other entrée, Vietnamese ham, pickled pork sausage and fried shrimp cupcake (#097), went down in the "what was I thinking?" category. It was a big pile of rice noodles topped with lettuce and surrounded with the other items. Vietnamese ham turned out to be a pale, spongy meat served in thin and unappealing slices.
The pickled pork sausage reminded me of something you would find in a big bottle sitting on a bar next to the pickled eggs. As weird as a fried shrimp cupcake may sound, it was actually the best thing on the plate. I think it was a wad of shrimp paste, onions and vegetables wrapped in dough, molded in a cupcake pan, deep-fried and cut in half just before being served. I sort of liked the whole noodle-salad-and-pickled-sausage farrago, but my dining companion pronounced it "goofy."
There were six Vietnamese people at the table beside ours on that visit. They craned their necks to check out our table, asked us what we were eating and oohed and aahed at the softshell crab and pan-fried noodles. It turned out some of them were from San Diego and some were from New York. They had asked a friend in Houston to recommend a Vietnamese restaurant for them to visit. Que Huong was the local's top choice. They were blown away by the quality of the food and the cheap prices. There is nothing on a par with Que Huong in New York or San Diego, they told us.
On several return visits, I sampled some of the wide variety of soups offered at Que Huong. I had a big bowl of hot pho with rare beef and well-done flank (#026) one cold winter morning. On another day, I had soup with big, wide rice noodles and spicy beef and shrimp (#039).
I love the assortment of herbs and condiments you get with the soups at Que Huong. There was the usual mint, cilantro, jalapeño and bean sprouts, but some also came with the wonderful stinky fish mint. And there were also stalks of tong ho, the frilly-topped edible variety of chrysanthemum known as shungiku in Chinese. The crunchy tong ho can really stand up to a bowl of hot broth.
When I picked up a to-go menu, the owner warned me, "Order by the numbers!" The people who answer the phone don't speak English, so you don't really have much choice. I called and got a spread to snack on while we watched a football game one afternoon.
For finger food appetizers I got the aforementioned Vietnamese egg rolls with the lettuce leaf wrappers and the pan-fried squid (#273). The Vietnamese calamari comes with salt and preserved plum powder for dipping. You squeeze some lime juice onto the fried jumbo squid sticks before you dip them so that the salt sticks.
The juicy, char-grilled shrimp in the grilled giant prawn and egg roll vermicelli bowl (#080) was excellent. But next time, I think I'll get the grilled giant prawns with vermicelli and rice paper (#090) so I can twist some up into rolls. I also got some hot pepper and lemongrass chicken (#203) with steamed rice that was spicy enough, but not overwhelming for those who didn't want anything too adventurous.
I first heard about Que Huong about five years ago. It was recommended to me as one of Houston's best Vietnamese restaurants, so I tried it out. The appetizer called shrimp toasts (#006) sounded innocuous enough. But it turned out to be shrimp paste spread on white bread and fried. It was so greasy, you could push down on top of the slice of bread with a fork and oil would flow out the bottom. I also tried a soup with bitter melon stuffed with ground pork (#173). The wart-covered gourd was way too bitter for me and made me think Que Huong was too authentic for my tastes.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I decided to visit the new location of Viet Hoa supermarket at the intersection of Beechnut and Beltway 8. After cruising the gigantic new Asian food store, I continued west on Beechnut for a few blocks to see if there were any new restaurants over there. At Wilcrest, I came upon Que Huong and stopped back in for a lark.
I ordered a bowl of mi hoanh thanh xa xiu, egg noodle soup with barbecued pork and wontons (#053), a dish I encountered when searching for Houston's best mi (egg noodles), the Vietnamese version of ramen. While I ate, I looked over the rest of the menu. I had forgotten how extensive it was — there are nearly 350 items on it. And thanks to all that Houston had taught me about Vietnamese food in the last five years, some of the food now sounded fabulous.
When I paid my bill, I was surprised to see the business card for Le Viet, an Anglo-friendly Vietnamese restaurant, on the cashier's stand next to the card for Que Huong. "That's my son," the owner said proudly when I picked up the card. The authentic Que Huong and the upscale Le Viet make an intriguing family dynasty.
The problem with authentic Vietnamese restaurants with extensive menus and a waitstaff that doesn't speak English is that you often end up with a bowl full of stuff you don't want to eat, which is what happened to me the first time I walked into Que Huong. Too bad it took me so long to get over that experience.
In last year's review of Le Viet ["Mainstream Asian," June 7], I considered the advantages of Vietnamese restaurants like Le Viet and Vietnam Coast with Anglicized menus and waitstaffs that speak English. The good thing about these Anglo-friendly Vietnamese restaurants is that there aren't any surprises like the bitter melon soup — and the bad thing is that there aren't any surprises like Que Huong's tempura softshell crab either.
I now realize that Que Huong really is one of the best authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Houston. And judging by the reaction of the Vietnamese-Californians and Vietnamese-New Yorkers I met there, it may be one of the best family-style Vietnamese restaurants in the entire country. You may not like all 340-something items on the menu, but there are some mind-blowing dishes in there waiting for adventurous eaters to discover them.
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