I've driven past Lúa Viet Kitchen on West Alabama dozens of times during its construction phase and through its opening, but it wasn't until I was struck by a craving for tofu vermicelli and it was an easy four minute drive away that I finally stepped inside.
Given that I already have my usual haunts in Houston, it's safe to say I had low expectations for this fast-casual Vietnamese concept—even with its emphasis on MSG-free dishes and locally sourced ingredients. Opened by co-owners Nick Ngyuen and Mardi Do, Lúa occupies one of the spaces in the new Alabama Row development. From the outside, its polished, modern facade looks like any new fast-casual growth. In fact, its facade is mirrored almost exactly at the other end of the development where BuffBurger has an identical exterior, save for the logo.
But inside, there are details that elevate above just another fast-casual stop. When you round the corner of the L-shaped restaurant, there's a stunning mural of women in a rainbow of brightly colored áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese garment. Bags of Boomtown coffee line one counter, alluding to the custom blend Lúa orders for its Vietnamese coffee. And a dish of salt and pepper shrimp arrives with a bright, acidic salad with leaves fresher than I've seen in most Vietnamese joints.
And each forkful seemed to unfold more salad from a seemingly never-ending pile. This bed of salad bulks up the handful of lightly, perfectly fried shrimp so succulent that we even ate the tails. The shrimp was so fresh, it inspired a rare curiosity to eat meat—to see if the quality of locally sourced meat (reportedly from 44 Farms) measured up to the quality of the juicy, flavorful shrimp.
But that will have to wait. The tofu vermicelli bowl is similarly bursting with fresh ingredients: a medley of thickly cut, glossy vegetables that have been cooked for just enough time in a hot pan, enough to soften the edges without wilting into oblivion, and plenty of wrinkly, tender tofu waiting to be doused in the prepared fish sauce. It's not traditional Vietnamese (have you ever seen a mushroom in your vermicelli bowl before?), but I'm a big fan of the vegetable-heavy twists. I'll never say no to high-quality lettuce and produce to bulk up a typically noodle-heavy bowl. The tiny vegan egg roll that I opted to add on top felt faintly like highway robbery for $2, but the egg rolls probably feel like a better deal when you order the half or full order for $5.
All of the dishes feel relatively light and bright, but the the lotus shrimp salad is a particularly light choice rife with bright acid and textures—chewy lotus root, crunchy cucumber, tender shrimp and foamy rice crackers that dissolve on the tongue.
There's kind of a dreamy quality to the interior, and not just from the tons of light that streams in from the floor-to-ceiling windows. From the corner we were tucked into, it almost calls to mind a museum in the way the murmurs of conversation echo off the polished concrete floor and emanate into the exposed rafters of the ceiling. With just a few tables occupied in the room, the decibel level wasn't offensive, and even if it does get loud, you can always move outside to the slim patio facing West Alabama, weather permitting.
And speaking of dreams—what still occupies my daydreams is the Vietnamese coffee, luxuriously thick, almost syrupy on the tongue with a deeply roasty aftertaste that permeates through the finely ground ice cubes. Lúa doctors the custom Boomtown blend with a condensed coconut milk (dairy free!) and it easily landed as my favorite version in Houston.
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But there's one last element that sets Lúa apart—and that's the visible, unmistakable heart behind the concept. When you visit, you might spot Nick running drinks, sweeping floors, running the register, wiping counters, or greeting you at your table. He came over to ask how we were enjoying our food, told us a little about the concept and asked for our names. When I told him I had almost ordered the salt and pepper tofu over the vermicelli, he told us to wait—and brought out a sample from the kitchen, replete with a little dish of freshly squeezed lime juice and lots of salt and pepper that gets doused across the top. And we weren't the exception—the warm hospitality clearly extended to everyone who walked through the door.
When it comes to places that I return to again and again, I tend to gravitate toward cheap eats where I can get in and out for less than the price of a moderately nice carwash. Lúa Viet Kitchen is not necessarily in that price bracket—but it's not that far off. Lúa ticks a lot of boxes: fresh, craveworthy dishes, service that will genuinely try to know you by name, beautiful ambiance, and a spacious parking lot. It should be a strong contender for many Montrosians' new neighborhood haunt.