Once again, Kaitlin Steinberg is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes as we work our way toward our annual Menu of Menus® issue and culinary extravaganza. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most delicious, most creative and, of course, most indicative of our ever-changing food scene. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that are uniquely Houstonian.
In Vietnam, mi quang is such a popular and classic dish that poetry has been written about it. There's one couplet in particular that speaks to how delicious the traditional meal is:
"Thuong nhau muc bat che xanh,
Lam to mi Quang anh xoi cho cung"
The poem tells the story a young girl who says she can prove the depth of her love for her mate by making him a cup of che xanh (green tea) and a bowl of mi quang. In short -- when you love someone, show it with mi quang.
OK, so pretty much all English-language references to this poem seem to trace back to a Wikipedia entry on mi quang, but it's a nice sentiment, no? Having eaten mi quang at Simply Pho, I think I understand how it could serve as an expression of love.
The dish seems complicated (though it's really not) thanks to the many elements at play within it.
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It's anchored by turmeric-colored bright yellow noodles, so vibrant they're almost fluorescent. Buried beneath the noodles are ruddy chunks of pork so tender that they can be pulled apart with your fingers and a thin, dark-brown broth flavored with fish sauce and meat juices. Bright pink and red shrimp poke out from beneath coarsely ground peanuts atop the noodles, providing a lovely contrast with the fresh sprigs of grass-green cilantro and water mint nestled around the edges of the bowl (if you ask for it). Topping it all off are white crisps made with black sesame seeds arranged so they're jutting out of the bowl at intervals like edible sculptures.
Unlike pho or bun bo hue, this Vietnamese soup is more about the meat and noodles than the light, simple pork and shrimp broth. The broth is there primarily to tie all the flavors together and moisten the noodles a bit. In that sense, it's almost more like sauce than broth, but it's still a vital part of the dish.
The best way to eat mi quang is to dig in with chopsticks and attempt to get a bit of every element with each bite. You want the doughy, turmeric-flavored noodles along with the savory pork and salty, briny shrimp. You also want the cilantro in each mouthful to brighten the flavors, and the peanuts and crisps to add different textures. When it all comes together at once, it's a pretty incredible sensory experience.