When people who have never tried Vietnamese food ask me what they should try, I usually recommend the grilled pork and rice vermicelli, or bun thit nuong, and a pineapple milkshake, or sinh to thom.
As with any other ethnic food, recommending easy-on-the-palate dishes is meant to lessen the fear factor of eating something foreign. This "baby steps" approach will hopefully lead people to try dishes that can be more daunting, like whole grilled fish (ca nuong) or caramelized catfish in a clay pot (ca kho to), two of my favorite traditional Vietnamese dishes that require a more adventuresome palate.
Furthermore, grilled pork is one of those things that all Vietnamese restaurants generally do well, so not only is it consistently good, but it's easy to find on most Vietnamese menus. "When in doubt, order the grilled pork and rice vermicelli," I'll say. "You can't go wrong."
I'm going to vary my typical recommendation today and recommend the grilled lemongrass beef vermicelli, or bun bo nuong, at Com Tam Kieu Giang (11209 Bellaire Blvd, Ste C-06 at Boone) in the Hong Kong City Mall. I discovered this dish last year and have been ordering it on an almost weekly basis ever since.
Served in a large white bowl, the grilled lemongrass beef will come out of the kitchen glistening in its juices. They don't grill the beef until you place the order, so you can be assured it has been freshly grilled every time. Topped with a smattering of crushed peanuts and green onions and served over a bed of springy white vermicelli, the dish comes with pickled carrots and daikon, julienned cucumber, fresh bean sprouts and lettuce, as well as tangy mixed fish sauce.
What makes this dish so good is the grilled lemongrass beef. "I don't use any MSG," the owner proudly tells me in Vietnamese. "I marinate it in soy sauce, fish sauce, and honey. The honey is my secret ingredient." The resulting pieces of slightly charred grilled beef are tender, lean and very tasty. I like the fact that I don't feel weighed down after eating it, and that it costs a mere $5.95. Light and refreshing, it's perfect for lunch on a hot and humid Houston day.
Last year, I took a group of foodies on a tour of Houston's Chinatown. Among them was Michael Cordúa, chef/owner of the Cordúa restaurant group that owns Americas and Churrascos. "This is some of the best Vietnamese food I've ever had," he told me as we were leaving. The item he sampled? The grilled lemongrass beef vermicelli.
Com Tam Kieu Giang is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and it's cash only. The name "Com tam" literally means "broken rice," which is their specialty, so while the grilled lemongrass beef vermicelli is really that good, you may take one look at the menu and decide to forgo the baby steps in favor a rice plate. The service is quick and efficient, the restaurant is clean and bright, and pretty much everything is good at this little hole-in-the-wall in the Asian mall. Either way, you can't go wrong.