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A Prix-Fixe Dinner at an East End Banh Mi Shop

If blog entries could have a deck in addition to the headline seen above, in this case the deck would be: "Plus: The Best Red Velvet Cake Outside of My Mother's House."

I continue to be amazed -- stultified, even -- by what chef and owner Minh Nguyen is doing with Cafe TH, the subject of this week's cafe review. Once a little mom-and-pop banh mi shop frequented mostly by older Vietnamese and University of Houston students, the old Thiem Hung Bakery has been transformed into Cafe TH by Nguyen, who bought it from the previous owners about a year ago.

This transformation has included an update of the old menu, which emphasized mainly Vietnamese sandwiches, as well as an update of the interior. Now more evocative of a French cafe than an East End sandwich shop, that new aesthetic is even more on display during the dinner service that Nguyen offers only twice a week: Thursdays and Fridays from 6 to 9 p.m.

You don't yet need to make reservations for the stunning three-course prix fixe dinners that Nguyen is doing there, but I have a feeling you may need to as the service continues to draw fans. On this past Friday evening, my dining companion and I dropped by the normally sunny and cheery restaurant to find white tablecloths and flickering candles on each of the tables, the lights dimmed and chill indie music playing on the stereo. It was downright romantic; or it would have been, if my dining companion hadn't been my best girl friend.

The menu changes each Thursday and Friday evening depending on what Nguyen has been experimenting with back in the kitchen. (If this type of uncertainty bothers you, the entire regular menu is also available during dinner service.) This Friday, it was a modern Vietnamese twist on a Thai salad -- som tam -- for the first course, a Vietnamese take on filet mignon for the second course and good, old-fashioned red velvet cake for the third.

All of the elements of the traditional som tam salad were there that night: shredded green papaya, chopped peanuts, small red chiles, tangy lime and garlic and briny shrimp in place of fish sauce. But in addition to all of these elements were vermicelli noodles and bean sprouts, turning the salad into a sort of bun-Thai hybrid. My amazed friend wolfed her portion down as I sat, contemplating mine with a sort of bemused and appreciative humor.

The filet mignon, next, was in the style of com dia, the traditional Vietnamese rice plates that normally come with thit nuong -- diced pieces of chargrilled pork -- and fresh vegetables on the side. Here, the "com filet" or whatever appellation you'd like to give it came with the standard jasmine rice topped with green onions and garlic, but with sauteed green peppers and onions on the side next to a fat pile of diced and sauteed filet mignon. They were puffed up, tender and barely cooked to a medium pink, each bite nearly exploding in your mouth with butter and juice.

But the red velvet cake which came as our third course (and dessert) topped the steak for sheer moist goodness. Nguyen set the giant, two-tiered piece down in front of us, and I suddenly wondered how one person could finish this slice. The layers themselves were thick and sandwiched with and surrounded by a perfect smear of cream cheese frosting that had a pleasantly crystalline texture just at its tips.

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I couldn't grasp how the cake managed to be so moist, so chocolaty, so...something out of my Texan mother's own oven. Surely this came from a bakery, and not an East End sandwich shop. I asked Nguyen where he got it from, and his vaguely puzzled reply was, "I just made it an hour ago. And last week I made a great lemon cake!" he continued happily.

I polished the rest of it off, stunned and bemused by the inventive dinner I'd just had, both brazenly modern and yet grounded in tradition -- both Texan and Vietnamese at once, yet incorporating other cuisines' flavors as they come along and as they make sense. People talk about big-name restaurants like Reef pioneering Gulf Coast Cuisine. But here in Old Chinatown in a nearly one-man operation, Cafe TH is doing the same thing, just down the street. With better food. For far less money.

But you can only get it on Thursdays and Fridays. At least for now...

For more photos from Cafe TH, check out our slideshow.

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