Tan Tan No. 2
It's the second time during dinner that the armed guard who is stationed outside Tan Tan has prowled restlessly through the aisles of the restaurant, entering silently through the front door and making his way past tables of diners who seem determined to ignore him. The guard takes in everyone he passes as if they were potential suspects in some dastardly hot pot-related crime. My dinner companion and I are seated on the same side of a booth, our chopsticks paused over a platter of stir-fried flat rice noodles, as we watch him.
Finally, he retreats outside and we go back to half-heartedly picking at the platter, alternating between bites of the over-smoked noodles and the under-battered General Tso's chicken on the neighboring platter. My sour plum with soda sits untouched; the soda went all over the table when I opened the warm bottle. We have asked for glasses of water several times and been ignored. So far, dinner is a bust except for this random bit of security guard-provided theater.
During this, my second dinner at Tan Tan, we've ordered the stir-fried flat rice noodles with beef and broccoli. I've had it countless times before at Tan Tan — at the original location on Bellaire Boulevard, that is — and never been faced with such a salty, smoky mess as what was sitting before us. It was as if the noodles had been left in an old barbecue pit overnight in the rain. I know what it is; the oil was old and far too hot, therefore way past its smoke point. This isn't a mystery; it's just a simple case of extreme carelessness in the kitchen.
The General Tso's chicken has roughly the same consistency as the noodles: soggy. The chicken is normally fried twice (healthy, I know), but tonight it's just been fried once and given a cursory pass under some flat, sweet-and-sour-based sauce. Both dishes were edible, but neither of us wanted to keep pretending to be interested in them. Underwhelming was the word of the night.
The banh bot chien had finally cooled off enough to eat, so we tried to reinvest in this dish, which has been one of Tan Tan's best. Upon arriving at our table earlier, the fried rice cakes in the omelet had been so fiercely hot that they'd burned my dinner companion's mouth and his hand as he quickly spat it out. Now the dish was cooled off somewhat, but was soft and bland. The accompanying soy sauce didn't help, as it had been spiked with far too much vinegar and sugar.
In the distance of the vast room, we watched as the waitresses gathered around a table to sing "Happy Birthday" to a middle-aged man who was seated with his parents. The song was as halfhearted as our food had been. It was the most depressing birthday dinner we'd ever seen, and a pall fell over the table for the rest of the meal. All memories of a short first meal here over a decent plate of shrimp macaroni (smoky and stir-fried, like the noodles) faded fast.
We paid our bill and left, quickly. I apologized to my dinner companion until we got home. He took the food that our waitress had boxed for us and threw it ignominiously away.
I was initially excited when I heard that Tan Tan was opening a second location, as the old fish tank-lined restaurant on Bellaire had long been a favorite for cheap, late-night food — it stays open until 3 a.m. on Saturdays — and an easy place to introduce neophytes to Chinatown since 1986. It's the very first restaurant in Chinatown that I took my parents to, some years ago, and we feasted on banh bot chien and wiggly fried pork intestines washed down with skunky gulps of Tiger beer.
But when I heard it was opening along a part of Westheimer that can most kindly be described as "having seen better days," I was less heartened. What was the point? It wasn't far enough away from Chinatown to be useful to someone who thought, "I'd really like Tan Tan but I don't want to make the drive." It was just right down the street, really. And I can't imagine there's a thriving market for what is now overly expensive Viet-Chinese food that can be had elsewhere for much cheaper (and much better, too). Tan Tan's charms seem to lie solely in its old, hardscrabble location with its faded fish tanks and gruff waitresses.
The waitresses at the old location are what my friend David Tong and I refer to as "the Vietnamese version of old diner waitresses." They don't have time to stand around and wait while you pore over the immense, 25-page menu. They're not going to sit and explain dishes to you. They're not going to hold your hand while you try your first salted lemon with soda. But this matter-of-fact attitude fits the location just fine.
At the new Tan Tan, you're seated under high ceilings and above gleaming tile. It's clear the owners have made a real effort to make the large restaurant as palatial as possible on a Houston budget. There are mock fruit trees shading some tables and a large mahogany bar in one far-away corner. But some of those gruff waitresses seem to have made the transition over here; they're very out of place amidst the shiny new hot pot burners on each table and the modern black and white prints at the entrance.
When you do luck out and get a good waitress, however, she's a gem. But even this does little to endear me to the new location, with its anachronistic 1980s-era fittings and fixtures (see earlier, re: Houston budget) and extremely off-putting armed guard out front. I know that this stretch of Westheimer has seen a rise in crime over the past few years, but nothing really drives that point home like the sight of a holstered pistol as you walk into a restaurant.
On my third visit, I took David Tong along with me. Like me, he's been eating at the old Tan Tan for what's approaching decades now. We both agree that it's not "destination" food, but it's certainly comfort food for both of us.
"This place has no soul," he casually mentioned over dinner. He was looking around the cavernous dining room, all shades of beige with a few pops of color from those faux fruit trees. Soul is exactly what's missing here, even in the food.
It was better on this third visit, to be sure, but still nowhere near as good as the original. Tong had wanted those same stir-fried rice noodles with beef and broccoli, so out they came. This time, however, the noodles tasted appropriately smoky and there was an abundance of fresh Chinese broccoli, which had been missing last time. The mixed fried rice was light, fluffy and studded with pork spare ribs and sweet Chinese sausage. And the pork sate had a rich oyster sauce that finished with the tiniest kick of spice.
"I added an extra few vowels when I ordered in Vietnamese," Tong laughed. "That let them know to make it the 'right' way." I laughed too, knowing it wasn't true. But wouldn't it be funny if that's all it took — a secret handshake or a passcode — to transform mediocre food into something palatable?
Later on, at home, I told a friend about our dinner experience and he conspiratorially suggested that I could only get good food at Tan Tan if I brought a Chinese or Vietnamese friend with me. I know restaurants where you can certainly get a better menu with an Asian friend in tow — even if you take a Korean friend to a Cantonese restaurant, for example — but none where the food is miraculously transformed into a proper feast by virtue of having a Vietnamese guy at the table.
Instead, I chalk it up to this: Tan Tan's new kitchen is extraordinarily inconsistent. But it's been open for nearly a year at this point, meaning that the "new" excuse is set to expire any day now. Will the kitchen ever find its sea legs? I'm not too concerned, because I've had enough of the new location. And, in truth, most restaurants in Chinatown have now far surpassed the old Tan Tan in quality, too. But at least it's always there if you need hot pot at 2:30 on a bleary Sunday morning.
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