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A Transplant Tries Van Loc

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Being new to Houston, we'd only passed Van Loc Restaurant's green neon sign at 3010 Milam in Midtown a few times. Each time the name evoked medieval images -- armor, unruly beards, pelts hanging from rafters. What would the food be in such a place? Stews, we'd guess, made with the animals to whom the pelts had once belonged.

Well, we discovered Van Loc was not a mead hall, but home to a lengthy list of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes (182 to be exact, not counting desserts, drinks and booze).

We started with No. 1, the shrimp and pork spring rolls rolled in rice paper. The ingredients seemed fresh enough, and any small-town Midwestern kid is always going to be transfixed by that sticky, translucent wonder of nature that is rice paper. But the real joy here was the peanut sauce. We used the rolls as a delivery vehicle for the hoisin-based sauce, and ended the meal pouring spoonfuls of it on rice (we would've eaten it straight if we hadn't risked a public rebuke). A companion labeled the stuff "Vietnamese Nutella," which fit. When asked its ingredients, our waitress grinned and said it's made in secret each morning before she and the other staff arrive. She added that she'd tried (unsuccessfully) to replicate it at home many times.

The entrees were across the board but generally positive. Ordering, we deferred to the waitress, who suggested No. 116, a steak dish. We were skeptical, honestly, given the underwhelming description ("filet mignon chunk steak with lettuce and tomato"). But when it arrived, the meat was more than satisfying. It was so good, we weren't bothered by the lack of sides (though a companion kept nabbing the roasted full garlic cloves and broth-soggy lettuce). Oily but not broth-soaked, tender but crispy at the edges (and not in a charcoal-heavy way), it was impressive.

No. 168, the crispy egg noodles with vegetables, was huge but average. The $5.95 pho was a great value and sported a flavorful broth -- onions, cilantro, perhaps cinnamon. But its owner regretted ordering the beef medium-rare (rather than rare). The meat added to the broth but fell flat solo. The broth-as-star trend continued with No. 142, the seafood clay pot. The auburn-tinted sauce (which arrived at the table bubbly and enticing, cauldron-style) held all the earthy, buttery, fishy flavors.

We all agreed it's worth another visit, mead or no mead.

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