I explain that the first time I visited Ba Ky, the sumptuous new Vietnamese restaurant near the intersection of Beltway 8 and Bellaire, the waiter poured my beer over ice without asking. That's the way they drink beer in Vietnam, he told me. It was a hot day, I was thirsty, and the suds on the rocks looked pretty inviting, so I went ahead and drank it. Now I've gotten into the habit -- at least here at Ba Ky, where they automatically bring a glass of ice with beer.
I've been to Ba Ky at least a half-dozen times since it opened a few months ago. It's become one of my favorite places to bring visitors from out of town. (Scott lives in Austin.) The restaurant is a short drive away from Hong Kong City Mall, a mandatory stop on any serious food lover's tour of Houston. Much of the food at Ba Ky is unusual, and some of it is stunningly good. It's especially fun to show the palatial Ba Ky to people who think all ethnic restaurants are tacky little dumps. Their eyes invariably pop out of their heads.
French colonial furniture, columns of giant bamboo stalks and tropical arrangements of birds of paradise and pineapples greet you at the massive front door. The bar is a vast expanse of exquisite woodwork. The dining rooms are split between two levels. The ceiling fans are spade-shaped paddles of woven palm that go back and forth in unison as if they were powered by a rowing team.
Scott is impressed. And he's thrilled about the food. He's on the Atkins diet, and Vietnamese grilled meats served on cool greens with herbs and spicy dipping sauces are perfect for the high-protein regimen. He orders Com Bo Luc Lac, which translates to flame-broiled beef chunks served with a vinaigrette salad and your choice of rice. (He asks for extra salad instead of the rice.) The tender broiled beef cubes are served over lettuce, lots of tomatoes and some barely cooked snow peas. A sweetened vinegar dipping sauce comes on the side.
I order the Vietnamese fajitas, a plate of grilled beef served with herbs, vegetables and condiments, which you roll up in rice-paper wrappers. The hot beef retains the tang of a lemongrass marinade, and the tomatoes, cukes, onions, sprouts, mint, basil, shredded carrots, jalapeño slices and romaine leaves are all fresh and chilled. If you eat Vietnamese roll-your-own spring rolls a lot, you've had the frustrating experience of getting a pile of rice-paper sheets that are stuck together; peeling those little devils apart is harder than skinning catfish. But at Ba Ky, the sheets are brought to the table on a stack of dividers that look like pink Ping-Pong paddles. The paddles keep the sheets from sticking to each other, and little nubs on the paddles keep the sheets from sticking to the plastic.
There are more gadgets. Scott wants to know what the trapdoor in the top of the table is all about. I pull up the insert to reveal a hot plate that is built into a recessed shelf. "It's for hot-pot dishes," I tell him. "We're not ordering one."
Most hot pots leave me cold. One recent evening, with six New Yorkers in tow, I ordered the most expensive hot pot on Ba Ky's menu, a seafood extravaganza called Ta Pin Lu Do Bein. The waiter brought a pot of plain water to the table and put it on the hot plate. Then we got an assortment of seafood: shrimp, scallops, oysters, fish pieces and fake crab. The vegetable bowl held spinach, napa cabbage, tofu and two uncooked eggs. The waiter volunteered to make a sauce out of the raw eggs with soy, chile paste and so forth. I suppose it was obvious that we didn't know to do this ourselves.
In fact, we were arguing about how the whole thing worked. I guessed we were supposed to poach the seafood a little at a time and then have the broth later. The hungry guys in the crowd thought we should shove everything we could into the pot immediately. In the end, the poached seafood wasn't that exciting, the raw egg sauce and fake crab were completely unappealing, and there were so many other good things on the table that eventually we all lost interest. Maybe I'll take some hot-pot lessons and come back and try again.
More likely, I'll just stick with the dishes that Ba Ky does best. Chief among these is Ca Chien Nuoc Cot Dira, crispy fish with red coconut sauce. It's a whole catfish, fried in a light tempura batter so that every piece is moist and tender on the inside with a crunchy coating on the outside. The fish is served swimming in a rich and spicy coconut red curry. Every time I pull off a little piece of fish, dip it into the sauce and pop it in my mouth, I make embarrassing sounds of appreciation. My daughter says I sound like a cartoon dog.
She's partial to Ba Ky's charcoal-broiled pork with imperial rolls over vermicelli. While it's indeed a splendid version of that noodle-house standard, I'm inclined to order more upscale fare here. The beef and chicken clay pots, for instance, are both stupendous. The meat and rice are flavored with ginger, scallions and cilantro, then sealed in individual clay pots and baked. The result is a delicious "risotto" in which the meat and rice have melded together into a smooth and creamy casserole.
As for appetizers, the spring rolls are average, and the Vietnamese ham cube wrapped in steamed rice-noodle sheets features lots of gloppy noodles. Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese crepe stuffed with shrimp, chicken and vegetables, tastes like nothing but bean sprouts. But Xoi Vit Chien, an appetizer of roasted duck served with sticky rice patties and a honey-garlic sauce, is extremely good.
I have yet to try the lobster, crab or prawns, and I'm eager to sample the Bo Ba Mon, a three-course beef dinner. Judging by what's on other people's tables, the pineapple fried rice, which is served in a half-pineapple, is popular as well.
Ba Ky also serves its pineapple sherbet in a hollowed-out pineapple half. The coconut and mango ices come in real fruit shells, too. It's a breathtaking presentation, but frustrating to eat. The fruits are stored in the freezer, and it takes at least ten minutes before they've thawed enough for you to get a spoon into them. Order dessert in advance.
Ba Ky is popular with the Vietnamese community and makes no effort to cater to Anglos, so don't come here expecting to find Americanized food, American restaurant customs or English-speaking waiters. The television blares, cigarette smokers puff away with no concern for you, and your beer may be served over ice. But if you like ethnic restaurants where you can experience the culture along with the food, this is a great place.
The last time I visited Ba Ky, I stopped in just to have dessert: a durian smoothie. Ba Ky also makes exotic smoothies with soursop, avocado and dragon fruit, but I was especially interested in the durian. I was showing a visiting food writer around, and we had just been admiring the durian at Hong Kong City Mall. My food writer friend admitted he had never tried the stuff, and I thought it might be amusing to witness his first taste.
Durian, known as stinkvrucht in Dutch, is the most highly prized fruit in Asia. The thorny outer shell makes the whole fruit look like a hedgehog, but the soft yellow flesh has a sweet and creamy flavor that is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, for all its succulence, durian smells like rotten eggs.
The first time I tasted the stuff was in the living room of Prabhadpong Vejjajiva, a durian grower in Thailand and that nation's former deputy minister of finance. The news that a Westerner was about to encounter durian for the first time drew a small crowd, including a photographer and reporter from the local newspaper.
As a world-food veteran who has eaten bugs, barnacles and goat brains in the line of duty, I expected to delight the crowd by eating a whole durian at my first sitting. But to my chagrin, the initial bite nearly made me gag. Something about putting that rotten-egg smell in your mouth makes the fruit impossible for first-timers to enjoy. Your brain simply revolts. The Thai photographer recorded my expression of shock, and the crowd roared with laughter.
I guess it's one of those things that grow on you, though, because the durian smoothie at Ba Ky actually tasted pretty good. But while the smoothie was being made, I convinced Ba Ky's bartender, a young Vietnamese-Houstonian with a good sense of humor, to give my friend a piece of durian to eat by itself. The intrepid food writer bravely gave the stinkvrucht a sniff and then, reluctantly, took a bite. Several employees giggled from a discreet distance when they saw the look on his face. I wish I'd had a camera.