Time marches ever on, especially in Houston, where entire neighborhoods rise and fall in the time it takes to refill the gas tank in your SUV. And while Midtown is often cited as a prime example of the type of gentrification that wipes entire ethnic enclaves off the map, the old Vietnamese community that was so firmly entrenched in the area hasn't disappeared entirely.
While restaurants, barber shops, nail salons, jewelry stores and other Vietnamese businesses have come and gone in the area -- Kim Tai, for example, remains the only holdout on Fannin -- a staunchly Vietnamese corridor still remains near Milam. That's where you'll find a densely populated stretch that includes old favorites such as Les Givral, Cali Sandwich, Van Loc and Pho Saigon as well as newer spots like Red Pier and Simply Pho, the latter of which opened a couple of weeks ago.
Simply Pho replaced Pho Nga, the run down noodle shop which squatted resolutely at the corner of Milam and Anita for years despite a rather charmless interior and average food (with the sole exception of its chargrilled meats, which helped Nga to win a Best of Houston® award 13 years ago). While new owners have taken over the old spot and given it a cheerful makeover, I understand the old cooks are still intact.
All I can say about that is that the new owners must have given them some new recipes to work with, because Simply Pho has upped Pho Nga's game by a few small yet notable notches.
While the beef pho was as anemic as I remember it being at Pho Nga, I was charmed by the chargrilled beef tucked inside the soft, wiggly sheets of bánh cuốn that Simply Pho's menu indicated was one of its signature items. (It does so by employing colorful smiley face stickers on the menus, although I noticed that the smiley faces seem to change from menu to menu.) Clearly, the chargrilling technique has held up here over time.
The same perfectly chargrilled meat -- this time pork, with a rugged sear and an assertive garlic note -- featured in a banh mi. Although the sandwich itself is easily trumped by the nearby Cali Sandwich, it was still a sturdy example of the Vietnamese sandwich genre, spread with tangy mayonnaise and filled with fresh jalapeño and shredded carrots. What really impressed me, however, was an item I'd never had before -- anywhere.
I ordered the banh canh Hue solely because I'd been craving bun bo Hue lately and figured this unfamiliar soup would be close to the fragrant, nose-clearing beef stew from Vietnam's Hue province -- a soup that's a fascinating blend of savory, salty, sour and sweet, with ruddy cubes of congealed pig's blood bobbing in the fermented shrimp paste-laced broth.
Shrimp, however, (and not the fermented kind) was the only similarity I found between the banh canh Hue and the beef soup I know and love. The broth was light and nearly pink, which I quickly discovered was due to the rosy-colored shrimp balls -- dotted black with pepper -- that floated in the soup alongside some curiously gelatinous noodles.
I took a bite and found that the noodles tasted similar to udon -- the long, fat Japanese noodles -- but with a much more pronounced jelly-like texture. It was an altogether pleasant feeling, like a combination of those slippery bánh cuốn sheets and heavier, fatter strands of vermicelli.
Taken with the sweetly briny broth and springy shrimp balls, it was an altogether exciting new experience and a reminder that there's always something new to discover -- whether a new restaurant or a new dish -- even when you feel as if you've tread the same ground a million times.