Half of a Vietnamese barbecued pork sandwich and a small bowl of soup makes the perfect portion, my daughter Julia declared. We were finishing up our second soup-and-sandwich lunch at Bodard Bistro, a popular Vietnamese eatery in the Welcome Center on Bellaire. On our first visit, she determined that a whole Vietnamese sandwich and a large bowl of pho was too much to eat at lunchtime.
Soup and a sandwich isn't really an Asian tradition (as far as I know). I'm not sure it was an American tradition either until the extremely successful "soup and sandwich" advertising campaign was launched by the Campbell's soup company during World War II. The campaign ran for decades. By the time of my childhood, Campbell's soup and a Wonder Bread sandwich had become the epitome of a suburban lunch, especially during the winter.
At my house, my brothers and I all dunked our sandwiches in our soup, and we all had our favorite combinations. Grilled cheese dunked in cream of tomato was a popular pair-up. Bean-and-bacon soup with toasted BLTs was a rare and exotic treat. I liked a ham-and-Swiss sandwich dunked in chicken noodle, myself.
9140 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-541-5999.
Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight daily.
Mi lo mein: $5
Mi wonton: $4.75
Vermicelli soup: $6
Stir-fried flat rice noodles: $7
When the weather turned cold last week, I was reminded of those halcyon ham-sandwich-and-chicken-noodle-soup lunches. And at the same time, I discovered an Asian restaurant called Bodard Bistro that served Vietnamese sandwiches as well as pho, mi and rice soups. So I hit upon the brilliant concept of improving on the canned soup and white bread of memory with some Vietnamese soup-and-sandwich combinations. For the most part, it was a dumb idea.
For Vietnamese-Americans, the beef-soup-and-rice-noodle dish called pho is a favorite winter breakfast or lunch, a friend told me. Mi, the Vietnamese noodle soup that combines curly egg noodles with a pork-and-shrimp broth, is considered more of a late-night snack, for after you've been out drinking. She didn't say anything about soup and sandwiches, though.
For our first S&S lunch at Bodard Bistro, my daughter ordered pho with rare beef, and I got a big bowl of mi with wontons. When we each ordered a barbecued pork sandwich to go with our soup, we got an unanticipated bonus. Vietnamese sandwiches are an incredible deal at Bodard: Buy two and get one free.
First we dunked our sandwiches in the hearty beef broth. The pork in the sandwich didn't harmonize well with the beef flavor, in my opinion, although Julia liked it okay. The sandwiches tasted spectacular when dunked into the pork-and-shrimp broth of the mi, however. The sweetness of the barbecue sauce on the meat in the sandwich and the porky flavor of the soup complemented each other perfectly. But as we reached an advanced level of satiety, I had to agree with Julia that a whole Vietnamese sandwich and a large bowl of soup was entirely too much food. We left a lot uneaten. But we happily took the extra sandwich home.
Bodard Bistro was so intriguing that I ended up visiting the place four times, twice for lunch and twice for dinner. The first thing I noticed was that the restaurant is usually packed. Most of the patrons are Asian, and by my casual observation, the most popular things to order are noodle dishes. But why do people stand around waiting for a table at this particular Asian restaurant when there are more than a half-dozen Asian restaurants in the same shopping center?
"This is the place Mom likes because she says, 'It's not too greasy,' " I overheard an Asian guy tell his female companion as they were walking into the restaurant one night while I was walking out. Maybe that's it. Or maybe it's the clean, well-lit atmosphere.
Bodard Bistro is a big square box-shaped restaurant with booths along one wall, a hokey fake fountain on another, and tables spread over the white-tile floor. There's lots of neon and a big-screen television that's always on. I particularly like the "noodle soup" sign in the front window that's illustrated with white neon noodles coming out of a blue neon bowl.
On the back wall are two old French signs for espresso and cappuccino. And on a side wall near the cash register are wall hangings shaped like cups that also advertise cappuccino, espresso and café latte.
"Do you serve espresso and cappuccino?" I asked the cashier.
"No, just Vietnamese coffee," she said. I guess the decorations are part of the "bistro" conceit.
My favorite dinner was called stir-fried flat rice noodles, an item that is available with beef, chicken or shrimp. We got the chicken version. The dish starts out with broad white rice noodles that are folded over each other to form a thick cake and then fried into a big thick, crusty oval. The noodle cake is then cut into squares and topped with the meat sauce. My daughter described it as a rice-noodle pizza with a chicken topping.
The noodles are fabulous. They start out tightly stuck together and crunchy, but by allowing the sauce to soak in, you can eventually unravel them. And they taste great both crusty and softened up. Unfortunately, the chicken sauce included a lot of canned mushrooms, which gave the whole topping a too-slick texture. Next time I'll get the beef or shrimp.
And in the future I'll skip Bodard's salt-toasted squid, a fried seafood dish that is usually one of my favorite things to eat in Vietnamese restaurants. The squid I got tasted like they were fried in oil that wasn't hot enough. Instead of a crispy texture, these squid tasted gummy. And the waiter forgot the salt and lemon dipping sauce that's supposed to be served on the side.
Better to stick with the great noodle dishes at Bodard, I guess. Another standout I tried was the mi lo mein with beef, a version of the Chinese noodle dish made with curly egg noodles. The stir-fried chunks of beef and vegetables were ordinary enough, but I can't recall eating lo mein made with such awesome al dente egg noodles before.
The portion was extremely generous, and since we had a lot of other items for dinner, I ended up taking home most of the mi lo mein. My admiration for those noodles grew steadily over the next two days as I stood in front of the refrigerator eating them out of the Styrofoam box.
But on that last visit to Bodard Bistro, although Julia and I got the sandwich portion right, we got the wrong kinds of soup. Julia ordered chao, which is Vietnamese for congee, a savory Chinese rice porridge that comes with your choice of meats or seafood. She ordered hers with shrimp, and it came to the table with six fat ones at the bottom of the little metal bowl and a shower of sliced scallions over the top. It was one of the best versions of chao or congee I have sampled. The shrimp were freshly cooked and crisp and juicy, while slivers of fresh ginger gave it aromatic zing. The broth the rice gruel had been cooked with had a brilliant seafood flavor. Julia loved the stuff.
"But it's not the best kind of soup to dunk a sandwich in, is it?" I asked her. She just shrugged her shoulders and dunked away.
"I like it," she concluded.
I got the bun, or vermicelli. I asked the waiter about the first item on the bun menu, which was translated into English as vermicelli soup "with sanguine bits."
"That means blood," the waiter explained. I immediately remembered the cubes of congealed blood I have unwittingly eaten at dim sum restaurants and congratulated myself on avoiding them this time.
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Instead, I ordered something called beef, pork and spicy soup vermicelli. And, of course, it arrived with two big cubes of congealed blood on top. I ate a little bit, just to prove how brave I am. The scary-looking stuff tastes totally innocuous and wiggles innocently on your spoon; it might as well be dishwater Jell-O. At least there were some other things to eat in the bowl. Most of the thin slices of pork and beef were quite good. A few others were evidently the tendon portions, another item I usually try to avoid.
The broth was okay, but the thick vermicelli noodles weren't very interesting. They looked more like spaghetti than vermicelli, and they were overdone. The soup came with a different pile of herbs than those you get with the pho or the mi. This mélange included fresh mint leaves, sprouts and red cabbage shavings, along with the ubiquitous cilantro and jalapeño slices. I stirred in the herbs, but they didn't redeem the soggy noodle soup.
Julia was overjoyed about how well the half a sandwich and small bowl of soup worked out portion-wise. But by this time I had given up on the Vietnamese-soup-and-sandwich idea anyway. It's ridiculous to try to satisfy your suburban white-bread culinary aesthetics in an ethnic restaurant. And there are so many great dishes at Bodard Bistro, why go there and combine things that aren't meant to go together?
But if you can't resist the idea of dunking a Vietnamese barbecued pork sandwich in a big bowl of soup, go ahead and try it. It may not be very PC, but it really is better than a ham sandwich dunked in Campbell's chicken noodle. Just forget the bun and stick with mi.