There's nothing new about using game meats like venison, quail or rabbit in Vietnamese cooking. Boar luc lac? Sure. Venison tai chanh? Absolutely. What's new is its general availability in Houston. As in, it isn't generally available.
So when I heard that a place in Pearland had an entire portion of its menu devoted just to game meats, you'd better believe that I hightailed it down Highway 288 as quickly as possible, ending up in the friendly, family-run Thanh Phuong, Houston's answer to Los Angeles's popular Phong Dinh and the subject of this week's cafe review.
The last two pages of its long menu list options such as rabbit, quail, boar, venison, mutton, eel (not really a game meat, but...okay) and alligator. I had vague hopes that the pho would also be available made with game meat -- can you imagine boar pho? or venison pho? -- but was slightly chagrined to see that the pho offerings were very standard stuff.
Minor disappointment aside, I dove headlong into the menu and came up for air six dishes and nearly three hours later. It was thrilling.
From the ruddy, lemongrass-and-lime-soaked, slices of deer meat in the nai tai chanh to the crispy nuggets of deep-fried rabbit served with a generous handful of sesame seeds on top, every single dish that my dining companion and I ate that day was nothing short of stunning.
But back to that pho for a second. After all, Houstonians judge a Vietnamese place -- pho restaurant or not -- on the quality of its noodle soup. We requested a sample size of the broth and were delighted to find it the equal of all the excellent game dishes we'd just devoured: a rich, dark broth with warm currents of anise and cinnamon running through the strong beef flavor.
"Do you think they'd ever make boar pho?" I asked my dining companion.
"I was just thinking that," he said. And I believe that he'll find out one way or another, as he's going to be working in Thanh Phuong's kitchen soon. Chris Shepherd, arguably one of Houston's most talented chefs, was that dining companion and he's recently worked out a deal to stage in this tiny, family-staffed kitchen in Pearland.
Whether he ends up making boar pho or not, be on the lookout for Vietnamese-influenced dishes on the menu at his new restaurant -- Underbelly -- when it finally opens. Billing the restaurant as "the story of Houston food," Shepherd intends to craft a menu there that reflects the broadly multi-cultural culinary heritage that's shaped Houston over the years.
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But if you don't want to wait, Thanh Phuong's fresh takes on Vietnamese game dishes are just down the road. And it's well worth the drive to get there.