The honey-glistening chicken, onions and green peppers jump around while the hot oil and butter pop furiously as Que-Lan Duong flips her wok with the grace of an artist at her canvas. For more than 30 years, Duong, known as Linda to her regular customers, has poured her heart and soul into the kitchen at Vietnam Coast.
Vietnam Coast has occupied the space at 2910 Hillcroft only since 1993, but the family has been in the restaurant business since 1981. The first iteration opened downtown as To Chau (tow-chow) in 1981. Duong has opened four other restaurants since then, but the only one remaining is the location at Hillcroft near Westheimer in Southwest Houston.
According to Duong, there is no real secret to having longevity in this industry. "Sometimes, I work 12- to 16-hour days because I love my customers and I love feeding them good food. You have to love that part to make it work," she said. Along with her two sisters, Diep and Huong, Duong is careful to use the freshest ingredients and quality proteins and produce in the French- and Vietnamese-inspired dishes she makes. Ap chao (aup-chow) is a recipe she takes pride in bringing to Houston. It is a pan-fried rice noodle usually sautéed with beef and Chinese broccoli. "I remember, many years before, when we were the first to make this dish, customers would drive 45 minutes to pick it up; nowadays, every Vietnamese restaurant has this dish on the menu, but we were the first."
Duong's regulars are finicky but loyal. She admitted that she often customizes many of the dishes on the 96-plus-item menu (down from the 300 items it used to have). "I believe that everyone is allowed to eat my food the way they like it best," she said. It doesn't hurt her feelings; a well-known distinction about Vietnamese dining is the opportunity for guests to self-spice. Most Vietnamese restaurants will leave fish sauce, soy sauce, chile paste, salt and pepper readily on each table for diners to create their own flavors.
Vietnam Coast is open 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day with happy hour specials on wine and beer between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. House specials include the Vietnam Coast beef and chicken, which is similar to the more commonly known bo luc lac, or shaking beef. The banh xeo, a turmeric rice flour crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, onions and bean sprouts, is also a good choice.