The lunch patrons today at Cuisine de L'Orient (Thien Kim) are all Vietnamese or Vietnamese-Americans, and every occupied table has a family-style soup bowl called a hot pot on it. I take a table by the window and ask the waiter which hot pot he recommends. He suggests I order the hot-and-sour fish soup. He also favors the hot rice rolls over the cold spring rolls, so I give them a try, too.
The little two-bite rolls, six to an order, are made of sticky rice noodle dough steamed with a filling inside. They're served hot, with cold chopped lettuce, cucumber and crispy fried onions on top. They come with a bright red dipping sauce, which seems to contain rice vinegar, chile oil and enough crushed peppers to widen your eyes.
The sign on the corner says Travis and, just below that, Tu Do, the Vietnamese name of the street. In this section of Midtown, all of the signs are written in Vietnamese and English. I guess there's some kind of festival going on because the streets are decorated with yellow flags with red stripes. I ask the waitress whose flag that is. It's the flag of the former democratic republic of South Vietnam, she says.
Cuisine de L'Orient (Thien Kim)
2905 Travis, suite A
713-521-2770. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Hot-and-sour fish hot pot: $7.95
Steamed rice rolls: $4.95
Spring rolls: $4.95
Escargot vermicelli: $5.95
The soup is hot and sour, but it's sweet, too. I can see that the heat comes from slices of jalapeño; I imagine the sour comes from rice wine vinegar. But I can't quite figure out where the sweetness comes from. After munching on the big pieces of catfish, celery slices and tender whole okra pods that float in the spicy fish broth, I finally bite into a pineapple cube. That explains the source of the mysterious sweetness.
There are a lot of small white bits in the bottom of the bowl, too. I figure it's crushed rice, a popular Vietnamese ingredient.
"You don't like rice?" a waitress named Vickie Huynh asks as she refills my water glass, staring at the partially eaten bowl of rice on my table.
"Sure," I answer, perplexed. "But there's some rice in the soup already."
"No, there isn't. You have to put it in yourself," she says.
"So what's this?" I ask, fishing some of the little white squares out of the soup with my spoon.
"That's garlic!" she laughs. "It's cut into little pieces and fried like that."
I am dumbfounded. There must be three tablespoons of garlic in this bowl. I eat some more. It tastes nutty. The garlic's natural flavor is tempered by frying, I guess, just as it is by roasting.
"Do they use catfish and okra in the fish soup in Vietnam?" I ask Vickie. The ingredients sound Southern to me.
Vickie explains that they have okra in Vietnam, but that cooks there use dau or bong lau instead of catfish, and a stalky vegetable like bacha instead of celery. They would also use smaller, hotter peppers instead of jalapeños.
The nutty garlic, hot jalapeño, sweet pineapple, unboned catfish and whole okra combine in an unusual way. The Houston version of hot-and-sour fish soup may not taste exactly like the kind in Vietnam, but it has its own appeal. I sheepishly add some rice to mine, which rounds out the flavor.
This is the second day in a row I've eaten lunch at Thien Kim. I had the escargot vermicelli soup yesterday. The chewy snails were so tough, they reminded me of the rubber tires I used to pull off toy trucks and pop in my mouth when I was a kid. Remember that squeaky sound rubber toys made when you bit them? And the sour grimy taste? That was it exactly. Luckily, the soup had a lot of shrimp and nice slices of pork in it, too.
The waiter tried to talk me out of the escargots. "They're an acquired taste," he said, wincing. I took that to mean he wouldn't eat them. To me, the dish sounded like another one of those fabulous French-Vietnamese fusion concoctions, like the Vietnamese baguette sandwiches. So I had to at least try it. The waiter/manager was a college student named John Ngynh. He was sitting with some friends. I imagine they got a kick out of watching me eat the squeaky snails. But that wasn't half as funny as the scene itself.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and the only other people in the restaurant were Ngynh and his three Vietnamese-American college chums, who were playing cards and eating a Papa John's pizza. I thought it was really hilarious -- for a while. The white guy eating Vietnamese food, the Vietnamese-American kids eating pizza.
"It does seem kind of ironic now that you mention it," Ngynh said with a smile when I pointed out our respective lunches. "But we get sick of eating Asian food every day -- and everybody eats pizza."
Right then, on the oldies station that served as our dining music, Elton John started singing "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and the paradox of the situation struck me. The song took me back to my college years and the war in Vietnam. I was the same age as these Vietnamese-American kids are now.
My fortune cookie said, "A good laugh and a good cry both cleanse the mind."
Former U.S. senator Bob Kerrey's agonies have brought back memories for all of us. Getting tear-gassed by the police during street protests was about the extent of my combat experience. My father, who fought with the marines in Korea, thought I was a coward for protesting. I ducked out with a student deferment, and I'm glad I avoided the war. But I have a deep sense of guilt and shame about it, and a feeling of betrayal toward those who fought and died there.
Two summers ago I took my kids to Washington, D.C., for a visit. While we were wandering around the Mall, we came upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and stopped in for a look. When I walked up to the black wall covered with names, tears started flowing down my cheeks. "Why are you crying, Daddy?" my daughters asked.
"I don't know," I answered truthfully.
In response to the Kerrey flap, the media have been airing the squawkings of the same old Vietnam-era hawks and doves. We've heard these pat answers and easy morals before. And they are as wrong now as they were then.
In Houston, there is a group whose opinions about the war I am much more interested in: the Vietnamese-American college students. Which is why I have come back to Thien Kim for lunch today.
Houston has one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country; current estimates run as high as 46,000 people. The immigrants began arriving after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Some were elite government and business leaders, and some refugees. The college kids hanging around Thien Kim are their children.
There are six students sitting at a round table, five males and one female. Several are members of the Vietnamese International Students Association at the University of Houston. I really want to ask them a question, so I walk to their table and introduce myself.
I explain that 30 years ago, when I was their age, I was asked to go to Vietnam to fight for their country. And I ask them, "If war broke out in Vietnam tomorrow, and it looked like there was a good chance of overthrowing the communist government, would you go fight?"
"No way," they all agree.
"Why not?" I ask. "It's your country."
"It would be brother fighting brother," one student explains.
"Hopefully we've learned something from history," says Andy Chau, a 24-year-old UH student. "Wars don't solve anything."
For these students, who grew up while the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were falling, the war in Vietnam must seem anachronistic. Chau's history lesson is direct: Governments fail only when people refuse to put up with them anymore. War can't bring that kind of change; it can only cause suffering and death.
The students tell me that the South Vietnamese flags on Travis were put out on April 30, the 26th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. With the rallies and flags, some members of the local Vietnamese community are trying to keep the memory of a free homeland alive, much like the anti-Castro activists in Miami. But the kids don't seem sympathetic toward the pro-democracy forces. They are pragmatists.
"Vietnam will be communist as long as China is communist," one student bluntly informs me.
"Our student group tries to aid the Vietnamese people directly without getting involved in politics," Chau says. For instance, when floods devastated Vietnam recently, the students raised $26,000 among the local Vietnamese and channeled the money into the waterlogged country through religious groups. "Let the U.S. government deal with the Vietnamese government, and we'll just deal with the people."
"Did the United States do any good in Vietnam?" I ask them.
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"No, I think the U.S. was there to pursue its own political interests," says 25-year-old Lucia Tran.
I wonder how their opinions as Vietnamese-Americans would differ from those of their purely Vietnamese parents. Like the traditional hot-and-sour fish soup with the Southern catfish and Texas jalapeños in it, Vietnamese culture has undergone an Americanization in Houston. The second generation is proud of their Vietnamese identity, but they are also recognizably American.
But these young people would be inheriting the leadership of South Vietnam if they still lived there. And in the end, their opinion on the war is the one that matters most to me. As I go back to my table to pay my bill and pack up my leftovers, I feel a sense of relief. My fortune cookie says, "Wisdom has kept you far from dangers."
Having one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the nation has added immeasurably to the Houston dining scene. The Vietnamese restaurants here are so good, they make similar eateries in New York and Chicago look laughable. But beyond the exquisite food, these restaurants provide Houstonians with a unique window on Southeast Asian culture. I like the hot pots and the rice rolls at Thien Kim, but it was the fresh perspective on political realities in Southeast Asia that impressed me most.