During the weekday lunch special, you can get a plate of these fluffy little crispies for a mere $3.95. Muc rang muoi, or "salted, toasted squid," as the dish is called on the menu, isn't exactly what I was looking for, but it's a hell of a find.
What I was looking for was fried cuttlefish, which used to be my favorite dish at the best Vietnamese restaurant in town, A Dong, also on Bellaire. When I first heard that A Dong had gone out of business last month, I nearly wept. It wasn't just the cuttlefish. They had an awesome summer seafood salad that was loaded with jellyfish, not to mention a stunning goat-curry-and-baguette combination. There's another Vietnamese restaurant at A Dong's former location now, but it has a completely different menu.
With A Dong's demise, I was left with the confusing task of picking a new favorite Vietnamese restaurant in a city that seems to have three on every block. I quizzed people wherever I went. I got my first lead about Jasmine when Houston Press staffer Steven Devadanam told me that his father swore by the place. The restaurant opened without fanfare six months ago in the former Ba Ky location on Bellaire, just inside the beltway. I tried to check it out online, but this one was flying so far under the radar, it hadn't even turned up on the Internet yet.
I finally got around to stopping by Jasmine for lunch a couple of weeks ago -- and what an eye-opener that turned out to be. Before I even got in the door, I was shocked to discover that San Tong Snacks, the city's top dumpling shop, had relocated from its dingy hole-in-the-wall location in Diho Plaza to shiny new digs next door to Jasmine. I was tempted to bag the cuttlefish quest and sit down for a bowl of soup dumplings. But I was enticed by a huge banner stretched across the front of Jasmine offering lunch specials from $3.95, so I went in and sat down.
The new restaurant wisely preserved the stylish interior that was already there. The space features high ceilings, exotic French colonial ceiling fans, lovely woodwork and clean, modern lines. It's a huge dining room with seating for hundreds, though I've never seen it more than half full under either the old or the new ownership.
I wasn't terribly impressed with the lunch menu. It's printed on a single sheet of paper, and it offers mainly cheap noodles and soups, including pho (beef noodle soup), mi (egg noodle soup with pork and shrimp broth) and bun (vermicelli). There are a few interesting seafood dishes, like the squid. Much of the rest of the $3.95 lunch menu consists of such Chinese classics as sweet-and-sour pork and General Joe's chicken.
I entertained the thought of getting up and leaving, but my lunchmate sat down and immediately expressed an interest in trying the banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe) on the appetizer menu. That went for a whopping $4.95.
Banh xeo looks more like an omelette than a crepe. It never seemed substantial enough for my appetite. A thin sheet of scrambled eggs is wrapped around a few scraps of pork, a couple of shrimp and a whole lot of bean sprouts. The dish comes with a lettuce-and-fresh-herb plate on the side -- you eat hot chunks of the omelette wrapped up in cold lettuce leaves sprinkled with mint, basil and cilantro. I sampled a few banh xeo lettuce wraps slathered with hot sauce. The dish was much better than I remembered it.
Without really thinking about it, I found myself ordering mi xo xiu wonton, a.k.a. egg noodle soup with roasted pork and dumplings. This is kind of dumb, since Tan Tan, Tau Bay and a half-dozen other restaurants known for their mi are located within blocks of here. My theory is that after I checked out San Tong's new location next door, dumplings invaded my subconscious and took over my voice. Luckily, the shrimp-and-pork-flavored broth was outstanding, and so were the curly egg noodles. The dumplings were a tad soggy, but all in all, Jasmine's mi wasn't such a bad call.
While the lunch fare at Jasmine was good and cheap, I still couldn't understand the restaurant's appeal. There are lots of Asian places with $3.95 lunch specials out there -- most of them are slowly sinking ships. But after the plates had been cleared, I went up to the vacant host stand and grabbed Jasmine's dinner menu. It was a heavy document bound in vinyl. And what a difference between lunch and dinner. There were pages and pages of exotic fare on the big red menu, some of which I had never heard of.