Cultural diversity shines in Houston, especially in the food scene. One genre that is very well represented is Vietnamese cuisine. Readers ask all the time which restaurant serves the best Vietnamese food, but it's a question that can't easily be justified with one answer. Restaurants can be known for great service and atmosphere, a fantastic beverage program and selection of craft beers, but we've found that no one place executes every dish better than any other place in the city. More often, restaurants become known for that specific off-the-chain item and that's what we wanted to know from our local chefs. What is your favorite Vietnamese joint and what do you recommend for diners?
Chris Shepherd, executive chef of Underbelly and One/Fifth, shares our philosophy of suggesting Vietnamese food. It really depends on what dish you want to eat. When folks ask for recommendations, he always starts with the same question: "What are you looking for, banh mi, pho, seven courses of beef?"
Chef Shepherd and his team dig the banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) at Cali Sandwich, 3030 Travis. "I actually think someone from Underbelly is there on a daily basis," he says.
Pho Binh at 10827 Bellaire is his pick for pho, and his personal favorite to share with out-of-town visitors is Saigon Pagolac for a family-style meal involving seven courses of beef (bo bay mon). "I’ve taken so many [friends] here, and it blows their minds. We’re so lucky to be in Houston and have so many incredible choices.” Saigon Pagolac is located in the Dynasty Plaza at 9600 Bellaire.
Like Shepherd, when Jennifer Thai isn't busy reinventing treats at Awesome Bites, her family enjoys the bo bay mon at Saigon Pagolac. The communal meal allows friends and family to cook table-side and use rice paper, along with fresh herbs and vegetables, to make personal spring rolls for dinner. The restaurant also offers "seven-course fish," with similar components available.
"Since I started a more plant-based diet, the only thing that hits the spot is the tofu and avocado banh mi at Roostar," adds Thai. Roostar Vietnamese Grill offers a variety of banh mi, rice and vermicelli options, wings and egg rolls. The original location is near Memorial City Mall at 1411 Gessner. Fans can look forward to a second outpost to open at 5551 Richmond in the Uptown/Galleria area in April.
Executive chef of Relish Restaurant & Bar, Dustin Teague said he loves the duck salad at Huynh, 912 St. Emmanuel. The EaDo restaurant lands on many food lovers' lists of best Vietnamese. The bun bo hue, a spicy beef noodle soup featuring trotters, is always incredibly flavorful.
When near West University, local private chef Eric Espinoza ducks into Vietopia, 5176 Buffalo Speedway, for a vermicelli bowl fix. The bun 4 mien is a combination of marinated chargrilled beef, chicken, pork and sugarcane shrimp over vermicelli and is served with lettuce, bean sprouts, pickled veggies, onions, peanuts and fish sauce on the side. He also enjoys the chao, a chicken and rice porridge soup (congee), at Mai's, 3403 Milam, a fixture in Midtown since 1978.
"It's not something people would think to get, but [it's] sooo good, creamy, and the chicken is finely shredded, almost like an egg drop soup. It's so fine," he says. The best part of the soup is the fried doughnut (gio chao quay) cut like croutons and placed on top.
Three generations later, after rebuilding in 2010 after a terrible fire, Mai's is still a popular late-night destination for Houstonians. The traditional cha gio (egg roll), made with rice paper, is a fan favorite.
Kiran Verma, executive chef and owner of Kiran's, loves the atmosphere and ambience at Le Colonial. "I don't usually eat Vietnamese food, but I love the pho at Le Colonial," she says. Chef Verma appreciates the spice, warmth and fresh herbs in the soup. Diners can find Le Colonial at 4444 Westheimer in River Oaks District.
Pastry instructor and pop-up chef Dory Fung has a really difficult time choosing just one to share. "All of my out-of-town friends say Houston has some of the best Vietnamese food they've had; I feel so lucky to live here," says Fung. Nam Giao, 6938 Wilcrest, and Thien Thanh, 11210 Bellaire, are among her go-to's. The banh cuon (steamed rice flour crepes) is made fresh every day, and the cha lua (pork roll) is made in-house at Thien Thanh.
If she had to choose, though, it would be the broken rice (com tam) plate at Thuan Kieu Com Tam, 10792 Bellaire in Lion Square. These entrées are served with a variety of goodies like grilled pork chop, sugar cane shrimp, grilled chicken, egg cake, shredded pork skin or a fried egg, or go for the gusto and order the special combination that comes with a variety of proteins.
Mike Serva, co-owner and chief taco-slinger of El Topo Truck, is a huge fan of Houston's Vietnamese food. "The deep and rich bone marrow broth at the Pho Binh 59 South location is my cure of everything." It's located at 8336 Southwest Freeway, and the pho is pretty pho-nomenal. Serva mentions that the taro root smoothies are a hit too.
Chef Matt Johnson of Phoenicia Specialty Foods points us a little off the beaten path to Friendswood, where his favorite can be found at Nobi Public House, 3640 East FM 528. Nobi is known for craft beer and Vietnamese fusion, but Chef Johnson loves the banh mi, the prices and the cool beer selection. "I like the pork sandwich with the addition of the fried egg."
Other Vietnamese dishes to check out are the bun bo hue (spicy beef noodle soup) at Pho Quynh inside 99 Ranch Market, the bo luc lac (shaking beef) at Hughie's, any of the sautéed crab dishes at Pho & Crab and the big-as-your-face banh xeo (crepes) at Thien An in downtown.
Where do you go for Vietnamese food in Houston? Let us know in the comments.