See more photos of Thanh Phuong's vibrant food in our slideshow.
Chris Shepherd's imposing frame darkened the door at Thanh Phuong, the chef apologizing for running late as he walked over to my table. It was understandable, as the restaurant is nearly hidden in a strip mall behind a Long John Silver's on a quiet stretch of Broadway in "old" Pearland. I didn't mind.
I was bouncing in my seat as Shepherd sat down. I handed him a menu and simply couldn't take it any longer, the wait forcing me to blurt out everything he needed to know about the restaurant in one, long stream-of-consciousness ramble.
"Okay, I already ordered an appetizer for us but I don't want to tell you what it is until it gets here because I want it to be a surprise, but first you have to look at the menu because look at the last two pages — they are nothing but game meats! — and then look over here at the lotus root salad and, okay, I can't wait I have to tell you what I ordered for an appetizer: It's venison carpaccio, Vietnamese-style, and I am so psyched right now."
The last part was perhaps a little redundant, and Shepherd was laughing at me by now. He ordered a soda chanh — club soda poured over a mixture of freshly squeezed lemon juice and sugar — to match mine and we settled in to continue perusing the menu.
"Did you see this?" he pointed at a dish of chicken wings in caramelized fish sauce. "I have to get that next time."
"Did you see this?" I responded as I pointed to a curried mutton dish near the back of the menu. This shared obsession with Vietnamese food was the reason I'd invited him, after all.
Shepherd was most recently the chef at Catalan, which was widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in Houston, before he departed to work on opening his own place, Underbelly, set to open on Westheimer in the spot where Chances was, within the next year. Catalan is currently dormant while it transforms into a new restaurant called Coppa. There's plenty of anticipation for Coppa to open, but it doesn't match the excitement over Shepherd's Underbelly.
The chef and I happily geeked out over the possibilities on the menu — many of which I've never seen in any other Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, let alone Pearland — until our venison carpaccio arrived.
I all but lost it. This was the food equivalent of love at first sight. My heart pounded with each bite.
Thin slices of deer meat, a dark ruddy color that was almost translucent, had been marinated in lime and lemon juice, with powerful, pungent notes of fish sauce punctuating the citrus marinade and subtly nudging up the naturally sweet flavor of the venison. Slivers of red onion and shallot wove themselves throughout the pile, topped with diced peanuts. We gobbled the plate down with chopsticks in one hand and broken-off bits of sesame-studded rice cakes in the other, the salty crackers serving as that last integral bite in a stunningly well-composed dish.
We quickly ordered five more things.
Out they came in quick succession: Vietnamese-style deep-fried rabbit with a sprinkling of sesame seeds atop the tender strips of meat; boar luc lac — traditional "shaking" beef using wild pork instead — that was crisped at the edges, but soft and lean in the middle; sautéed alligator in a mild bean sauce that was sweet and mild, the meat fresh and lean; pan-fried rice cakes that were chewy and crunchy all at once with a thrilling vein of coconut flavor running lightly through them; and two of the most perfect crèmes brûlées I have ever seen in my life, crackled tops looking like fine china broken open to reveal a custard with an elegantly silky texture that would have made Amelie weep.
By the end of our meal, Shepherd — who is often called "The Godfather" of Houston's food scene — was offering to stage at the little restaurant, although he first had to explain what staging is to the confused waiter: Essentially, it's an unpaid internship in a kitchen where you hope to learn from a master.
"Are you a cook?" asked our young waiter, the son of the proprietress.
"Yes," Shepherd chuckled back.
"Well, did you go to cooking school?"
"Hmm. I'll have to ask my mom." And with that, he retreated back into the kitchen.
Thanh Phuong has existed in Pearland for at least the last 15 years, but until very recently it served an uninspired if decent menu of Chinese standards with a few Vietnamese dishes thrown in. That was before the Nguyen family took over.
They smartly left the standards in place — Thanh Phuong still does a very busy to-go service in the evenings for families in the area — but added more traditional dishes to the menu along with a massive assortment of game meats, something which sets it very far apart from nearly every other Vietnamese restaurant.
"My friends laughed at me," said Vu Nguyen with a chuckle as he answered Shepherd's many questions about the menu during that first meal. Nguyen runs the place along with his mother, who silently mans the kitchen, and was determined to put his own mark on the new menu. He's part of a new generation of ethnic food restaurateurs moving menus in a modern direction, even out in the suburbs.
Nguyen's friends said that no one would order his venison, rabbit, quail, boar, eel, mutton or alligator. But he didn't pay them any mind as he set about sourcing the best local providers of these meats. He gets the rabbit from a farm just down the road; he gets the quail when it's in season.
While there were concerns about the salability of the game meats (which are what attracted me in the first place), Nguyen has found that it's actually the pho — something almost taken for granted in southwest Houston and inside the Loop — that's proving less marketable to Pearlanders more accustomed to fried rice than noodle soup. He's slowly turning people on to pho, though; much of his success can be attributed to the long roasting and stewing times for the beef bones, as well as his insistence on using only Vietnamese herbs and spices.
"Some people think you can use American stuff," he scoffed with a sly smile as he offered a sample bowl of his broth. It was intriguingly dark in the white bowl, an intoxicating mixture of beef fat and broth, anise and nutmeg. The surface was slick. The flavor stuck in the back of my throat, clinging richly to my tongue. I could only imagine what it would taste like fixed with fat purple basil leaves and bright coriander.
On my second trip to Thanh Phuong, I was pleased to find that the staff remembered me. The jovial, welcoming vibe is only further enhanced by their quirkiness and friendliness, although it turned out they mostly remembered me because I ordered so much food and because they were shocked to be serving white people who ordered Vietnamese dishes...and could pronounce them properly.
They're bound to remember me again, then, as I ordered just as much food this second time around. Our young waiter, who told us that he would be a stand-up comedian if he weren't studying neurology, bluntly told my group of four to move to a larger table because, "You guys ordered a buttload of food."
I ordered those chicken wings in caramelized fish sauce I'd admired from afar last time and wasn't disappointed, quickly crowning them my new favorite wings in town. The fish sauce had, indeed, been caramelized and released a sort of nutty sweetness out of the fermented stuff; all trace of briny or fishy flavor was entirely gone. It made for a sticky-sweet glaze on the wings that I couldn't get enough of, licking my fingers until every trace of it was gone.
Meanwhile, my dining companions were stone silent over their bowls of bun bo nuong — chargrilled beef over a messy tangle of vermicelli noodles — and clay pots of pork and rice. An entire pork chop lay across the top of the pot; underneath, the rice contained a wild array of carrots, peas, shallots, oyster mushrooms, diced sweet sausage and bits of fried egg. Across the table, another friend speared pieces of sautéed venison, the deer meat slicked lightly with oil from the wok that had seared it along with broad chunks of red bell peppers, onions and jalapeños. All were far too busy enjoying their food to discuss it.
And we once again ordered two pots of luscious crème brûlée to round out the meal.
I saw Chris Shepherd again at a Pilot Light dinner on a recent Saturday night. "Have you been back to Thanh Phuong?" he asked with a broad smile. "I'm going tomorrow for lunch."
"Oh yeah?" I asked. "And will you be working there after all?"
"Yep," he replied. "I've got it all worked out."
Shepherd plans to have several Vietnamese-influenced dishes on the menu at Underbelly when it opens within the next year, in a tribute to Houston's diverse and thriving ethnic food scene. So diverse and thriving, in fact, that Houston itself can't contain it all, making a drive to Thanh Phuong even more of an adventure.
I can only imagine how packed Thanh Phuong would be if it were any closer to the city. As it is, hidden away in old Pearland, it has all the potential to become a cult restaurant, the kind that inspires heady road trips and loving screeds on food blogs across the city, as well as inspiring a few chefs along the way.
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