Here, Eat This
Vietnamese cuisine has become one of Houston's favorite over the past few decades — coinciding with the large influx of Vietnamese immigrants that began following the Vietnam War — with dishes such as pho now rivaling cheese enchiladas as sought-out comfort food and banh mi joints rivaling taquerias as reliable spots for a cheap, delicious, filling meal.
As of 2010, greater Houston held the third-largest Vietnamese population in the nation (behind only Los Angeles and San Jose) — and it's growing quickly. According to the most recent census, the Vietnamese population was the fourth-largest among the Asian population groups in the United States, growing faster than the Chinese, Korean or Japanese populations. It grew by 56 percent in Texas alone between 2000 and 2010, with more Vietnamese immigrants settling in Houston and Dallas each year.
The result is a boom in Vietnamese cuisine not just in Chinatown but throughout the city. Houston in particular has also been the beneficiary of Vietnamese-style crawfish, a fusion phenomenon with its roots in Louisiana, where thousands of immigrants fled following the fall of Saigon in 1975. But it's not crawfish we're looking at today.
Today we're covering some of the most basic Vietnamese dishes that you'll encounter across Houston. Some, like the well-known pho, are representative of the northern part of Vietnam. Others, like bun bo Hue, are emblematic of the spice-loving central region of the country. And still more are sweeter, more tropical dishes that are found in the coastal southern part of Vietnam. And all of them are delicious.
Goi cuon / spring rolls
Pronounced: goy coo-un
You know spring rolls: those soft, bouncy, wiggly rice paper wraps filled with crunchy vegetables, vermicelli noodles, and sautéed shrimp or pork. These are typically served with peanut sauce, and they're one of the most commonly encountered appetizers on any Vietnamese menu — as well as one of the most accessible.
Cha gio / rice paper egg rolls
Pronounced: chah zoh
First off: These aren't really egg rolls. But that's what they look like, only smaller and packed into deep-fried sheets of thin, crispy, crackly rice paper. Cha gio are typically filled with ground pork, mushrooms, carrots and other vegetables, depending on the restaurant. As with many other Vietnamese dishes, there's no "official" recipe (although many of those dishes have become somewhat standardized in America). Dip your cha gio into the fish sauce that accompanies them, or chop them up and toss them with your favorite bun dish.
Nuoc mam / fish sauce
Pronounced: nook mom
Fish sauce is exactly what it sounds like: a sauce made from fish that have been fermented and then slowly pressed to extract the briny liquid. Basic nuoc mam is usually jazzed up with chiles, lime juice and/or sugar to create other sauces such as nuoc cham, which has a complex flavor that's salty, sour, spicy and sweet (and goes great on top of everything from bun to banh bot chien).
Pho / noodle soup
Pronounced: fuh (with a slight upward inflection at the end)
Arguably the most popular Vietnamese dish in Houston, pho — or rice noodle soup — is a relatively new dish by Viet standards. Believe it or not, this very Vietnamese dish has Chinese and French roots: Chinese influence in northern Vietnam brought rice noodles and signature pho spices such as anise, ginger and cinnamon, while French occupation of what was then called "Indochina" encouraged the consumption of beef. Pho is made by boiling animal bones down into a rich stock, then adding in rice noodles, spices, meat and vegetables. Although most pho has a beef base, pho ga (chicken pho) is gaining in popularity. A bowl of pho comes with garnishes and sauces that allow you to customize it to your taste. Typical garnishes include basil, lime, cilantro, jalapeños, crunchy bean sprouts, sweet hoisin sauce and spicy Sriracha. Popular combinations like pho bo vien add spongy beef meatballs to the soup. Pho tai adds thinly sliced rare steak that cooks in the broth, and pho nam adds slices of brisket.
Banh mi / French baguette sandwich
Pronounced: bahn mee
Though "banh mi" is itself simply the Vietnamese term for baguette bread (also introduced by the French), the term has come to be synonymous with baguette-style sandwiches. As with any sandwich, the variations on banh mi are endless, but most are garnished with cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon radish, cilantro and jalapeños, as well as French-supplied pâté and mayonnaise. In Houston, banh mi range between $2 and $5 each depending on the meat you get inside. Chargrilled pork (thit nuong) is a favorite, while a banh mi dac biet gets you a cold-cut combo.
Bun / vermicelli
The same rice vermicelli noodles found in pho are served cool atop a bed of greens (typically shredded lettuce and cucumber) to make a sort of rice noodle salad. Bun is usually topped with hot meat (chargrilled pork is a popular choice) for a nice contrast in textures and temperatures, then tossed with fish sauce and whatever else you decide to jazz it up with. As with pho, hoisin sauce and Sriracha are popular additions.
Com thit nuong / chargrilled pork and rice
Pronounced: gum tit noon
Com refers to rice, and the word that comes after "com" on a menu usually refers to the type of meat and other toppings that come with the rice. Again, thit nuong is common. But other favorites include ga nuong and bo nuong (chargrilled chicken and beef, respectively), as well as the fancier ga ro ti: a tiny roasted Cornish game hen. All rice plates also come with nuoc cham to perk up the rice and a bowl of broth laced with garlic and/or scallions to sip between bites of the sticky rice and cleanse the throat.
Bo luc lac / grilled beef with garlic, onion and bellpeppers
Pronounced: buh luke lock
Think of bo luc lac as Vietnamese fajitas. Here in Houston, the marinated beef with grilled peppers and onions is even served on a sizzling comal. Also called "shaking beef," bo luc lac — typically cuts of beef filet or tenderloin — has an instantly recognizable flavor profile of garlic and jalapeños. Served on a bed of lettuce, it's a nearly perfect Paleo meal if you're into that sort of thing.
Banh bot chien / rice flour cake omelet
Pronounced: bahn bot chen
Often served as a morning snack or appetizer, banh bot chien is essentially a small omelet containing rectangles of tender rice flour cake and topped with scallions and garlic. As simple as that sounds, presentation can vary widely from restaurant to restaurant and may include turnips and onions among other ingredients. Top it with nuoc mam for an addictive sweet-and-savory treat.
Banh mi bo kho / beef stew with carrots
Pronounced: bahn mee buh koh
If someone brought you a bowl of banh mi bo kho and you didn't know its origins, you might have a hard time guessing it's Vietnamese. This hearty winter stew of beef, carrots and onions in a black pepper-spiced broth could be equally at home on a French or American table, save for the hints of lemongrass and fish sauce in the background. It's served with a crusty hunk of French baguette (the banh mi part) for sopping up the broth when you've finished all the meat and veg.
Ca phe sua da / iced coffee with milk
Pronounced: caf-fay su-ah da (the final "da" is pronounced like "dad" without a "d" at the end
Called "the undisputed king of coffee" by Digest NY, Vietnamese iced coffee truly is a drink of the gods. This isn't ordinary coffee, however. Really good Vietnamese coffee starts with beans roasted in clarified butter. The finely ground beans are steeped in hot water for a slow extraction, and the resulting drink is much darker and thicker than typical American coffee. Sweetened condensed milk is poured into the hot liquid — no sugar required after that shot of creamy goodness — and the entire affair is then stirred well and poured over ice.
Soda chanh muoi / salted lemon soda
Pronounced: soda chain moo-ee
Although traditionally made with limes (chanh) pickled in salt, most soda chanh muoi found in Houston is made using lemons and amounts to something closer to a salted lemonade soda. The more conventional lemon soda — or soda chanh, made with club soda and a bunch of freshly squeezed lemons — forgoes the salt and is a safer bet, but both are refreshing on a muggy day.
Sinh to bo / avocado shake
Pronounced: sin toh boh
Unlike in Western cooking, where avocados are found in savory applications like guacamole, in Vietnam they're more often used in desserts and sweets. Avocados grow well in southern Vietnam, and sinh to bo is used to beat the heat. It's as simple as pureeing avocado and sweetened condensed milk together, then pouring the mixture over crushed ice (although you can also drink it in fluffy smoothie form, too). The avocado's flavor isn't the star here, but its silky, creamy texture.
Che ba mau / sweet bean dessert
Pronounced: chay baa mao (the last word is pronounced like "mouse" without the "se")
Like soda chanh, che ba mau is refreshing on a hot day. Like sinh to bo, it's not too sweet. But unlike most American desserts (not counting the miraculous bean pie), it's made with beans. You'll often find it listed on menus as "sweet bean combination with grass jelly and coconut milk," hinting at the dessert's tropical southern Vietnamese roots. Che ba mau means "three colours che" ("che" itself meaning a dessert drink or pudding), referring both to the three colors of the beans used in the dessert and to the lucky number three. You'll usually find mung beans, black-eyed peas, and red azuki or kidney beans in the dessert, and/or gelatin colored green with pandan extract (the "grass jelly" part). It's all mixed up with crushed ice and sometimes served with a coconut milk topping.
It's Blackberry Season
Where to find them, how to pick them, what to make with them.
Blackberry-picking season is right around the corner. In fact, in the next several weeks, blackberries will be ready for picking at several local farmers' markets. Don't be fooled by the early berries growing on the side of the road because those are dewberries, not blackberries.
Tommy Neal of Neal's Farm & Farmers Market explains that dewberries are ripe right now and blackberries will be two or three weeks from now.
"Taste-wise, they are almost identical," Neal says. "The amount of juice compared to the amount of seeds is drastically different."
As fun as it is to pick dewberries on the side of the road with the family, you should definitely wait a few more weeks to pick blackberries at local farmers' markets.
Rick Matt of Matt Family Orchards notes what blackberries should look and feel like when they're ready to be picked.
"When the berry turns the color black and it becomes shiny," Matt says. "It is not a dull color. It is still firm to the touch, but all of the fruit bits are full of juice — they are swollen. Those are the ones you want to pick."
Matt also notes that the best time to pick blackberries is in the morning. "It is cool and it is comfortable for the berry and you. It has rested all night long, and it is not dehydrated," he says.
Other than just using the appearance of the blackberries to determine if they are ready to be picked, Neal suggests grabbing them a particular way when pulling them off the bush.
"You grab a blackberry, rip the blackberry and twist it 90 degrees," Neal says. "If it comes off, it is ripe; if you have to pull on it, then it is not ripe. That is how you get the sweetest berries. They just snap right off when you turn them sideways."
Take the whole family out to one of these locations to pick fresh and sweet blackberries. The berries should be ripe in the next two or three weeks.
Matt Family Orchard
21110 Bauer Hockley Rd., Tomball
Neal's Berry Farm & Farmers Market
24527 1/2 Gosling Rd., Spring
9963 Poole's Rd., Montgomery
Blackberries of Houston
19531 Cypress Church Rd., Cypress
E & B Orchards
28268 Clark Bottom Rd., Hempstead
As soon as you get your fresh blackberries, you're going to have to whip up something in the kitchen with them. Here are five ideas.
5. Blackberry Pie
It wouldn't be summer without a pie. Whether you're hosting a family get-together over the summer or celebrating a birthday, or you just want to make a pie, a blackberry pie is always a crowd pleaser. Try adding lemon juice and lemon zest for a complementary citrus touch.
4. Blackberry Smoothie
You can throw just about any fruit into a blender with some blackberries for a refreshing breakfast or afternoon treat. Mangoes, bananas, oranges and other berries like raspberries, strawberries and blueberries all complement the sweet and juicy blackberries. Blend any combination of fruits with some yogurt or milk for a delicious summer snack.
3. Blackberry Glaze
Grill pork chops and baby back ribs for a summer cookout, and top with a blackberry glaze for a sweet finish. You can also incorporate some chipotle or other spicy ingredients to give the glaze a kick.
2. Blackberry Mojito
A little bit of mint, citrus, sugar, rum or vodka, and blackberries make for a refreshing and tasty summer drink. Sit poolside with this beverage, and you'll definitely feel like you're on a relaxing beach vacation.
1. Blackberry Cobbler
You can't pick blackberries without making a cobbler out of them. My mom always likes to add two fruits to her cobblers. Peaches and blackberries work perfectly together because they are both sweet yet a little tart, and their complementary colors make for a great presentation. Finish each bowl with a scoop of ice cream, and you have summer's best dessert.
Houston's 10 Best Bistros
Far more modern, far less French.
How do you define a bistro?
If you're going to stick to the traditional Parisian definition, a bistro (or bistrot) is a small, tidy restaurant that serves inexpensive wine and simple dishes in a modest price range. Those dishes are traditionally French "comfort food" recipes like coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon and steak-frites.
In a modern American city, the concept of a bistro goes beyond its Gallic roots but still — I think — stays true to form even if it's not serving remotely French food. I consider a bistro in Houston to be a small, unpretentious restaurant — usually of the neighborhood-restaurant variety — serving hearty, simple food and a selection of alcoholic beverages.
For this reason, I couldn't consider more upscale French restaurants such as L'Olivier, Aura or Philippe — places that draw audiences from all over the city, as opposed to the restaurants' immediate area. Nor could I consider too-casual spots that don't offer alcohol or a menu beyond a few sandwiches and pastries.
Bistros occupy a necessary middle ground between those two ends of a spectrum as restaurants that offer charming atmosphere and a thoughtful food and wine/beer selection with mid-range prices.
10. Zelko Bistro
This cozy converted house on 11th Street couldn't be more at home in the Heights, where most residents walk or bike to this neighborhood favorite. Owners Jamie and Dalia Zelko keep it local — with both their customers and the food. Produce, meat and fish are sourced locally when possible, while the restaurant even has its own beehives. Yes, the honey is for sale. Zelko also employs a very price-friendly wine list that allows for a bottle to be shared at even the most moderate of dinners.
9. Arturo Boada Cuisine
In a sleepy side street in the Memorial Villages, Arturo Boada Cuisine is alive with the energy of a European bistro. Chef and owner Arturo Boada is a constant presence there, turning out his signature dishes such as a creamy, tangy camarones henesy y hamaca — shrimp over plantains in a sauce — and Italian pizzas with Spanish ingredients on top, like a carnitas pizza topped with asadero cheese and cilantro. The wine list is occasionally pricey but is worth it; you'll want to split a bottle just to stay all night in the cozy space.
8. Mockingbird Bistro
This Montrose/River Oaks mainstay has the classic bistro menu and look down pat, with a beautiful mahogany bar that nearly spans the length of the restaurant. Mockingbird Bistro is a perfect place to enjoy a big fat steak with french fries and an earthy Rhône red wine or a hamburger and a cold beer, but chef John Sheely has other surprises up his sleeve, like a foie gras "club sandwich" with duck breast.
This pair of cozy spots — Canopy in Montrose and its older sister, Shade, in the Heights — is owned by Claire Smith, who's made a solid career out of delivering simple, straightforward yet creative cuisine with a panoply of influences. Try the four-mushroom pot pie or the lamb stew at Canopy, or enjoy a sumptuous breakfast with freshly baked pastries. At Shade, get the pan-seared duck or steamed littleneck claims — and don't pass up the clever cocktail list at either place.
6. Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro
Plonk bills itself as a Garden Oaks/Oak Forest wine bar, but it's so much more than that. The impeccably compiled wine list (owner Scott Miller was once the wine director for Pappas Bros. Steakhouse) is complemented by an eccentric beer list that's heavy on local and craft brews. And both lists are bolstered by a full dinner menu that features both modern American cuisine and bistro favorites like an aged hanger steak and wine-steamed mussels.
5. Bistro Provence
There is something intensely European about this jewel of a spot run by expat Frenchwoman Genevieve Guy. Perhaps it's the small kitchen with a roaring, wood-fired oven or its rustic seating with cozy tables, or the sensation of being pleasantly removed from the hectic, traffic-filled urban streets for an evening. Or perhaps it's all of these, with an added dose of plush foies de canard or delicate poussin rôti to really drive the point home. The all-French wine list doesn't hurt, either.
4. Nosh Bistro
New Upper Kirby restaurant Nosh is a bistro with a modern South Asian spin — a place where outstanding burgers mingle with curried fish, where charcuterie and cheese boards keep company with lamb flatbreads, where you can get a roasted Cornish game hen or a tandoori chicken. The wine list is studiously compiled and the upscale atmosphere is tempered with whimsicality, so it never feels stuffy or fancy. The fire pit on the cozy patio is incredibly inviting on cool evenings.
3. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino
Just as Nosh is the South Asian version of a bistro, if a classic French bistro had been born and raised in Italy, the result would be Giacomo's Cibo e Vino. This casual Italian restaurant and wine bar off lower Shepherd near River Oaks captures the essence of Italian city life and the spirit of the slow-food movement. Giacomo's snack-size plates of rustic Italian food; its cheap, easy-drinking wines; great espresso; and top-shelf gelato are the main draws — and there's also a big, comfortable patio that's beckoning in this spring weather.
2. Bistro des Amis
Perhaps the most "authentic" bistro in Houston, this Rice Village favorite offers classic bistro fare and charm. Bistro des Amis looks like the sort of small-town cafe where you stop to get a coffee and a pastry or an ice cream while shopping in a French village. And with good reason: The owners, Odile de Maindreville and her brother Bernard Cuillier, are from Biarritz, a town in the Basque region of France. Because of this, you'll find more non-traditional dishes like a slightly spicy "beef paprika," their version of goulash, and slices of moist gâteau Basque. Lunch and dinner specials are very reasonable, and the soups, stews and pastries (the last of which are always well-stocked in the pastry case) are made in-house.
The epitome of a cozy, welcoming neighborhood bistro, Roost hosts local residents — many of whom walk or ride their bikes — in its comfortable, low-slung dining room while they nosh on whatever weekly specials chef Kevin Naderi has whipped up. Whether it's whole roasted Cornish game hen with grilled lemon and duck confit Lady Creamer peas one night or crispy Galveston by-catch shrimp with masago mayonnaise the next, Naderi's multiethnic food shows off Houston's melting pot of cuisines with a subtle Southern touch, and the selection of intelligently chosen wines and local beers is terrific for washing it all down.
Openings and Closings
Renovated restaurants and born-again bars.
Eleven XI, the new restaurant helmed by chef Kevin Bryant, officially opened on Tuesday, May 7. The location, at 607 West Gray, had to be extensively renovated to turn the former One's a Meal diner into an upscale seafood restaurant — but fish isn't all that's on the menu. Also look for dishes like Texas quail with smoked Gouda grits and a daily fried pie.
The new tacos-and-tequila joint that replaced Nabi in Montrose is now open, too. Pistolero's — from owner Shawn Bermudez, who also runs the nearby Boondocks, Royal Oak and Koagie Hots — has totally revamped the old Nabi space, turning it into a posh taqueria with an inviting bar and patio. In addition to tacos, look for tortas, burritos, hot dogs and more.
Meanwhile, in the Heights, another renovated spot has opened: D&T Drive Inn, which was recently taken over by the same crew that runs nearby Down House. The craft beer-focused watering hole may look modern and sleek in that wholesome, airy Nordic way now, but it still has the soul (and garage doors) of an icehouse. Check out the bar top and communal table inside: Both were made from a felled tree on the property.
Wondering what would eventually take over the old Billy Blues spot on the Richmond Strip? Wonder no more. B4-U-Eat reports that Diablo Loco Wings y Mas Sports Bar has moved in. It's open every night for dinner, but lunch is served only on the weekends. The giant blue saxophone out front is gone but not forgotten. "The 70-foot sax made of an inverted VW Beetle has been moved to the Orange Show," notes B4-U-Eat.
Montrose residents no longer have to wait with bated breath for a Dunkin Donuts to move into the old Arby's space at Shepherd and Fairview, as it finally opened May 13. But it wasn't the first new Dunkin Donuts in town: Westchase residents got that honor when the donut shop at 10705 Westheimer opened early last week.
The classic Cafe Adobe location at Shepherd and Westheimer is no more. The two-story Tex-Mex joint famous for its patio and party atmosphere closed for good this past Sunday. But on the bright side, Houston will be getting another two-story Tex-Mex party palace soon enough: The second location of El Gran Malo is set to open inside the old Cabo location downtown in just a few months. The king is dead; long live the king.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.