Another dinner with Dad, another new dish discovered, this time at Thien Thanh on Bellaire Boulevard. Thien Thanh is not a new restaurant, of course; their banh cuon is the best in the city, and has been much lauded by Vietnamese-food lovers all over Houston. When my dad suggested we meet there for dinner, I assumed that's what we'd be ordering, and we did, but my dad also insisted that we get the bun cha Hanoi. One order would be enough to share among the three of us, he said. "Trust me," he said, and I'm glad we did.
Within minutes of placing our order, a platter of bun -- thin vermicelli rice noodles -- arrived along with a plate overflowing with lettuce, mint, perilla and other fresh herbs. And then a bowl of meat heaven was set on the table -- patties of ground pork and roasted pork soaking in nuoc cham (prepared fish sauce), and topped with pickled carrots and green papaya. For all intents and purposes, it's a deconstructed version of bun thit nuong, the more familiar bowl of vermicelli served at most Vietnamese restaurants. The northern Vietnamese version is served with everything separate, allowing for a family-style meal in which each person picks and chooses how much vegetables, how much noodles and how much meat he or she wants to eat according to personal taste.
The real difference is in the ground pork patties. The char-grilled patties have a nice crust on the exterior along with a moist interior and are thick enough to soak up just enough of the nuoc cham. We each took a little bit of noodles, added pieces of lettuce and herbs and broke the patties up into separate little bowls. The juices of the meat darkened and melded with the fish sauce and we used that to drizzle over our individual bowls of noodles.The process was repeated until we had finished the last of the noodles and all that was left was the fish sauce with its sheen of glistening pork fat.
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My dad was wrong: One order wasn't enough. We're a family of big eaters, so we asked the friendly server for another order and, while we were at it, an order of the famous banh cuon nhan thit. After all, we were at Thien Thanh and it would have been wrong not to.