The Midtown Banh Mi Showdown
Because the Houston Press office is in Midtown, I eat a lot of banh mi.
Need a light lunch? Banh mi. In a hurry? Banh mi. Craving meat, veggies and carbs? Banh mi. Want something spicy? Banh mi. It's my go-to meal to satisfy just about any lunchtime criteria.
Unfortunately for someone in my position (food writer), I can be a creature of habit. That means I find one decent banh mi spot without long lines, and I stick to it. Lately, that's been La Baguette on Milam. At least twice a week, I find myself there getting a fish sandwich, extra spicy.
But it seems any time I write about any banh mi, as I did recently for 100 favorite dishes and previously in December for 2013's list of 100 favorite dishes, people love to tell me I'm wrong. That particular banh mi isn't the best; some other one is.
I'm settling this once and for all.
Okay, maybe not once and for all, but I figured a taste test would be a good way to determine which spot actually does make the best banh mi. I decided to try banh mi thit nuong from five of the most popular places in Midtown: Cali Sandwich, La Baguette, Les Givral's Sandwich & Cafe, Simply Pho and the newly reopened Thien An.
To make the test as fair as possible, I ordered the same sandwich at each place. Banh mi thit nuong is a good litmus test for Vietnamese restaurants, and each place is sure to chargrill the pork or pickle the carrots in a slightly different manner.
A few things were the same in all the sandwiches, though. First, the bread was crusty but light. Second, each banh mi sandwich contained one long, slightly pickled cucumber and one slice of raw jalapeño. Last, each also contained shredded carrots and fresh cilantro. It's the differences that set some sandwiches apart from others.
Here are the results.
5. La Baguette — $3.50
Oh, La Baguette. Your fish sandwich is so good. You're the only place that offers to put some Sriracha on the bun along with the mayo. You never have a line. And now I think I might know why. The pork is nearly too fatty to chew. It has a nice gingery flavor, and the added pâté is a bonus, but the overly fatty meat put this sandwich in last place for me.
4. Simply Pho — $3.25
There's nothing wrong with Simply Pho's banh mi. The pork isn't too fatty, and it has a solid grilled flavor. There are carrots and cilantro and a slice each of jalapeño and cucumber. But this sandwich didn't really stick out in my mind as some of the others did. It's good but boring.
3. Cali Sandwich — 3.25
This chargrilled pork has the best smoky flavor of any of the sandwiches. It tastes almost like beef jerky with a hoisin sauce glaze. The pork is cut into thin strips in a seeming imitation of the shredded carrots also stuffed into the baguette. Aside from the great flavor of the pork, this sandwich is pretty standard as well.
2. Thien An — $4.06
Back from the dead, Thien An has banh mi enthusiasts all over town excited to get back to the Vietnamese restaurant for pho, banh xeo and, of course, sandwiches. The sandwich from Thien An is the most expensive I found, but it's also one of the best. There's no pâté on the baguette, but the pork is lean with a good grilled flavor, and the carrots are mixed with pickled daikon for an extra crunch.
1. Les Givral's — $2.98
Well, true to what many people claim, I found Les Givral's banh mi to be the best in Midtown. It's the biggest and the least expensive, and it's also everything a Vietnamese sandwich should be. The pork is lean and flavorful with a big hit of fish sauce and umami from the grilling. There's a generous smear of pâté on the baguette, and the pickled veggies are more infused with vinegar than in the other sandwiches. This is also the spiciest. Even after taking the huge jalapeño slice out to munch on it separately, I found the sandwich maintained a spicy heat.
And now, if you want to know which sandwiches are pictured in the main photo, left to right they are: Les Givral's, Simply Pho, Cali Sandwich, La Baguette and Thien An.
First Look at Luna Pizzeria
Pizza done right.
If you drive past theBarnaby's Cafeon West Gray, you've probably noticed a sign telling you to eat atLuna Pizzeriaon Kirby. After reading this sign practically every day, I have developed an undying craving for pizza. So a couple of weekends ago, I finally visited Luna, anew concept from the owners of Barnaby's.
Luna Pizzeria is tucked away in the corner of a shopping center on the corner of Kirby and Richmond. There isn't a giant sign guiding you to the restaurant, so it's kind of easy to miss.
Once you step out of your car to walk inside, you're instantly hit with the satisfying scent of pizzas cooking, and that smell intensifies as soon as you open the door. On a Sunday night, Luna is packed with families sitting in booths and friends sharing pizzas at the centrally located high-top counter. Beautiful lights shaped like starbursts hang from the ceiling, creating a starry night atmosphere.
I wish I could have dined inside Luna, but due to time constraints, I was forced to order my food to go; within 15 minutes, though, my order of two personal pizzas, a sandwich and a salad was complete. Take my advice and call ahead so you can pick your food up as soon as you arrive. Everything will still be warm by the time you get home, unless you can't resist diving into your pizza while sitting at a red light.
You can choose from six signature pies or build your own. As I scanned the menu for what looked best, I couldn't take my eyes off the Mushroom Signature Pizza featuring four types of mushrooms (baby portobello, shiitake, oyster and button) with spinach, rosemary and a dollop of whipped ricotta cheese on each slice. I prefer vegetarian pizzas, but my fiancé enjoys pies with meat toppings. He chose the classic Sausage Signature Pizza with crumbled sweet Italian sausage, sautéed red onions and red peppers.
A nine-inch personal pizza costs $7 and is perfect for one hungry eater or for two to share. Large pizzas are $5 more.
The combination of soft button and baby portobello mushrooms with crispy, almost dried, oyster and shiitake mushrooms balances nicely with the thin layer of red sauce and globs of creamy ricotta cheese. To the naked eye, the pizza dough appears puffy and soft, but with one bite your teeth crunch through the crust and you discover that it's both crispy and thick — the best of both worlds. Luna Pizzeria uses dough from Angela's Oven, and when the pies bake, the dough softens on top and crisps on the bottom and the edges.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the vegetarian variety, the sausage pizza stole the show. Sweet Italian sausage balances perfectly with the bitter, crispy red onions and spicy red peppers. Plus, the ratio of sauce and melted Mozzarella cheese to the crunchy crust is spot-on. It's a classic combination that is perfectly executed.
Meatball subs are probably one of my favorite sandwiches; they're down-home comfort food. Three large meatballs are stuffed into a thick toasted hoagie bun, then topped with melted Provolone, tomato sauce and a basil leaf. I'm not sure what kind of meat (or meats) Luna uses to make its meatballs, but I can tell you that each one simply melts in your mouth; you just might need a fork and knife to tackle these behemoths.
The Luna Caesar salad is standard with crispy romaine lettuce leaves; toasted croutons generously coated in olive oil, salt and pepper; and thick shavings of grana padano, a semi-aged hard Italian cheese similar to Parmesan. But once you toss everything with the garlic dressing, you're reminded that this is a Barnaby's Cafe concept, and Barnaby's salads have always been anything but typical.
Where to Eat in Spring Branch
The 5 best hidden restaurant gems.
Oh, Long Point Road. You are a foodie's dream destination.
There are consummate favorites Vieng Thai and El Hidalguense. There's Korea House, one of the most popular Korean restaurants in town, and Tacos del Julio, home of greasy but delicious trompo. Detour a little and you'll find Polonia, Houston's only Polish joint, where the owners are happy to keep the vodka and pierogis flowing, and H-Mart, a Korean-food-lover's dream grocery store.
But Long Point Road and the surrounding area — let's just call it Spring Branch so as to be all-encompassing — also contains a multitude of culinary gems you might not know about. Here are five of the best relatively unknown spots in the area.
Oh, and each restaurant is representative of a different country. Don't you just love Houston?
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this post, Spring Branch is defined as bordered by Clay Road and U.S. 290 to the north, Beltway 8 to the west, Katy Freeway to the south and Loop 610 to the east, but excludes the Memorial Villages (since those are categorized as Memorial).
5. La Plaza Mexican Restaurant
Since 1964, La Plaza has been serving up your Tex-Mex greasy-spoon guilty-pleasure cuisine morning, noon and night. It's an odd spot — part American diner filled with Longhorns memorabilia, part humble Tex-Mex and northern Mexican eatery. It's old-fashioned Tex-Mex fare here, nothing cutting-edge or fancy. As Robb Walsh suggested when he reviewed the spot back in 2009, your best bet is to skip the American diner food portion of the menu and go straight for the tried-and-true Mexican classics like milanesa and machacado.
4. Variedades El Salvador
Because Chris Shepherd of Underbelly is a huge fan of Long Point Road restaurants (and he knows them all), I approached him for an opinion on his favorite little-known spots. His response contained no words, just a photo he texted to me of the exterior of Variedades El Salvador. He wanted me to see for myself. When I entered, I discovered the place is a seemingly incongruous mix of pupuseria, convenience store and discount clothing outlet. Whether you want a soft drink, a soccer jersey or a pupusa con loroco with a side of curtido, you'll find it here. Be sure to get a side of curtido — lightly pickled cabbage slaw — to eat with the pupusas to cut the fat. These stuffed corn cakes filled with cheese are heavy but wonderful. Also note that no one speaks English here. Fortunately for English speakers like me whose second and third languages are French and Italian ('cause those are super-useful in south Texas), rudimentary sign language and a smile also work.
3. Mi Bella Honduras Restaurant
Honduran cuisine is a unique fusion of Caribbean and Spanish sensibilities with elements of indigenous and Mexican food as well. All these diverse cuisines are evident on the lengthy menu at Mi Bella, where you probably won't run into anyone who's not already familiar with Honduran food. For the best idea of all that Honduras has to offer, order the combo catracho, which comes with enchiladas, tacos de pollo, a beef pastelito, a baleada, fried yuca, fried plantain strips, smoky grilled chicken, and chunks of queso fresco and encurtido as condiments. The baleada, a sort of quesadilla with black beans and queso fresco, is particularly delicious when dipped into the pickled encurtido.
2. BBQ Garden Korean
The Spring Branch area is rife with Korean food, but one of the less popular spots is BBQ Garden Korean. The small restaurant has one long table in the middle, but the rest of the space is composed of semiprivate dining rooms with sliding doors that close, should you choose. Each table has a grill in the middle for barbecuing your own meat, but when it's a slow night, the server will offer to have the kitchen grill the meat for you, just to speed things up. The banchan — small dishes served along with rice (ask for the purple rice) — is some of the best in town, and the soups are similarly alluring, filled with spices and vinegary kimchi. Almost as good as the food is the fact that the restaurant is open until 2 a.m. every night to satisfy your late-night bulgogi cravings. That's not just me, right?
1. Tinto Grill
If you're a fan of Pampa Grill just down the road, you'll be a fan of Tinto Grill, an Argentinian spot specializing in parrilladas. Tinto Grill was started by a former owner of Pampa who parted ways and brought many of the employees along. The small but very charming space has been open about a year, and it's serving up the best parrillada platters in town. The "Grill for 1" (which the restaurant kindly agreed to serve to two people on a recent visit) features the juiciest, smokiest skirt steak, flank steak and sausage you'll find, along with unlimited chimichurri bursting with spicy garlic and parsley flavors. The empanadas are equally delicious. Order the six-empanada sampler plate to try everything from the classic ham and cheese to the Italian-influenced caprese. Much of the menu is composed of Italian and Mediterranean-influenced dishes, but don't let that confuse you. Due to waves of immigration in the 19th and mid-20th centuries, spaghetti is almost as popular as beef in Argentina. And at Tinto Grill, it's just as good.
Openings & Closings
Niko Niko's heads to Pearland while Dunkin' Donuts continues its Houston takeover.
It was quite an exciting week for many anticipated restaurant openings. Some are still in the soft opening stage, like Common Bond, but others have officially opened to the public, like Preview Modern Seafood Cuisine.
This new Sugar Land restaurant at 4645 State Highway 6, Unit C, was in the soft-opening stage as of May 12 and operating as BYOB, but as noted on the Facebook page, Preview was to receive its TABC license last weekend. Diners can expect cold-plate options of East Coast sea uni and ceviche chips 'n' dip; entrée selections feature "KFT" Kentucky Fried Taihitian Big Eye Tuna, and smoked yellowtail and apple tortellini.
The Egg & I also opened in Sugar Land at 9920 U.S. Highway 90-A. This breakfast-and-lunch franchise focuses on all things eggs (what would give you that idea?) Diners can feast on a variety of eggs Benedicts, from artichoke Florentine to crab cake, as well as breakfast sandwiches, burritos and omelettes. Waffles, pancakes and French toast are also available.
Ninja Ramen (4219 Washington) is now open, serving dinner until 2 a.m. on weekdays (except on Monday because it's closed then) and until 3 a.m. on weekends. CultureMap Houston notes that you can now pair those ninja-named cocktails with bowls of the signature pork-based tonkotsu ramen complete with a hard-boiled egg half, shallots, pickled bamboo and garlic oil. Ninja Ramen has not released an official menu, and when asked what's on the menu, the usual response is "ramen."
Eric Sandler of CultureMap revealed that highly anticipated Common Bond, at 1706 Westheimer, officially opened on May 20 and operates from 7 a.m. until midnight Tuesday through Sunday after its soft-opening stage. Executive chef Roy Shvartzapel has created a sweet and savory menu, but the fan favorite so far seems to be the kugelhopf, a sweet bread/pastry shaped like a mini bundt cake — yum.
We're stalking Siphon Coffee's Facebook page just as you probably are; we want to know when this new coffee shop will finally open! Rice Village Flea asked on Facebook when the 701 West Alabama coffee shop would be open, and Siphon Coffee responded, "Very soon my friend...hopefully by next week."
The Greenway Plaza Bambu Desserts & Drinks opened at 3825 Richmond. Bambu serves milk teas in a variety of flavors such as passion fruit, honeydew, coffee, almond and grass jelly, along with cold drinks such as chai tea, café mocha and Vietnamese coffee, all perfect for quenching your thirst this summer.
Austin import Daily Juice opened its first Houston location at 6401 Woodway Drive, Suite 175, on May 9. Daily Juice offers smoothies, cold-pressed juices, salads, and other foods to "grab and go."
Another VERTS has opened in the Houston area, this one in Vintage Market at 15556 Cutten Road.
As we mentioned previously, another Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robbins was set to open near West Oaks Mall at 2808 State Highway 6 S, Suite B, May 16 with grand-opening celebrations and activities, as well as a cup-stacking contest. The Dunkin' Donuts takeover of Houston continues.
In more expansion news, Niko Niko's announced on May 9 that the Greek restaurant would open a location in Pearland. The third Niko Niko's will be located inside the H-E-B at State Highway 288 and FM 518; it is expected to open in July.
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