Where: Huynh Restaurant, 912 St. Emanuel, 713-224-8694
What $13 gets you: A filling lunch of hearty, authentic Vietnamese food in a deceptively upscale setting. You can definitely bring your fancy-pants boss here for lunch, if you can get him past the front door.
As the center of Houston's south Asian commuity moves further and further west, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find excellent Vietnamese food inside the Loop, especially near downtown. What used to be a ground zero of family-style, homemade Chinese and Vietnamese food has made way for trendy townhomes and clubs with doormen who often don't even allow Asian people inside (a practice that's been termed "yellow-carding" by my Asian friends). How things have changed...
Luckily, Huynh Restaurant is holding down the fort over off St. Emanuel, not far from the Meridian. Every day of the week until 9 p.m. (except Sundays), you can get your fill of bún thịt nướng and bún bò huế for prices that are exceptionally easy on the wallet. The dining room is serene and warm, painted in sienna and rust colors with wood tones throughout -- decidedly different from the run-down strip mall exterior. And the service is clipped and short but friendly.
At lunch the other day, one of the most expensive items on the menu was calling out to me: the $8.50 cơm tấm with chargrilled boneless pork, shredded pork and a trứng hấp (egg cake, similar to a quiche) on the side. You can get any of the cơm tấm dishes with a fried egg on top -- the hallmark of any fantastic restaurant, truly -- but I opted for just the regular crushed rice dish with a little bowl of nước chấm on the side.
Normally, I feel compelled to add liberal portions of both Sri Racha and hoisin sauce to not only my cơm tấm but also bún, squeezing fat ribbons of red and brown atop the glistening piles of rice or noodles. But I found that Huynh's cơm tấm was so good, so juicy, so succulent on its own that I didn't want to add anything to it at all (except for the nước chấm, of course). A rarity, to be sure. The pert little egg cake on the side was a nice complement to the rustic, chargrilled pork -- and the entire plate was more than enough for one person for lunch.
Add to it a $3 cà phê sữa đá that did excellent double-duty as a beverage and a dessert, its silky condensed milk blending perfectly with the strong espresso, and it was a fine meal for just under $13 (although tip is extra, of course).
Recommended? Yes. We're lucky to still have such wonderful Vietnamese food downtown.
Bonus points: Amazingly cheap appetizers that are among the best in town, from the gỏi cuốn (spring rolls) and bánh ướt with chargrilled pork and veggies for only $2.95, to the gỏi vịt (pulled duck meat salad with a ginger sauce) that's worth every penny of the $8.50 it costs.