The cuisine of Houston is not easily defined. It is a symbol of the diversity of our great city. We can of course claim to have amazing Mexican food, barbecue and beef, but we also have some of the best Vietnamese food in the country, thanks to our large Vietnamese population. It's become very evident in many dishes at restaurants throughout the city that the food, ingredients and culture of that Asian country are very influential in our community.
A clear example of this influence is Underbelly, where Chris Shepard tells "the story of Houston food" through dishes that borrow elements from some of his favorite ethnic foods. And ask any chef around town and they will surely mention a Vietnamese restaurant as one of their go-to's. Being Vietnamese, the country's food is my home, and having grown up here, Houston is also my home, so to have the two intertwined makes this girl very happy. Here are my top five favorite Vietnamese-inspired dishes in Houston town.
5. The Shrimp and Grits at Down House is much talked about, and deservedly so. This is a dish that truly combines a Southern standard with our city's Vietnamese tastes. An island of tender Anson Mills grits sits in a light herbal pho broth. Plump shrimp and bacon bits add sweetness and fattiness, and a beautiful poached egg graces the top of the dish. Once the yolk is broken, a layer of creaminess is added. The flavors are familiar yet different, and it is the very definition of what Houston cuisine has come to be.
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4. Bryan Caswell and Reef, like Underbelly and Chris Shepherd, is another example of a chef and a restaurant that draw inspiration from the Vietnamese cuisine of Houston -- Reef itself is housed in what used to be a Vietnamese strip mall. The Vietnamese Coffee Tart at Reef is a dessert that even those who don't normally eat dessert make room for. The thick crust holds the luscious coffee and chocolate custard. The custard has the slight chicory flavor that traditional Vietnamese coffee is known for, and is not cloyingly sweet, but has the pleasant bitterness of a good dark chocolate. The best part of the dessert is the condensed milk ice cream, which ties it all together to create the profile of Vietnamese iced coffee.
3. For me, the ultimate comfort food has always been pho, and the Matzah Ball Pho at The Eatsie Boys Cafe is comfort squared. Imagine two grandmothers, one Vietnamese and one Jewish, in the kitchen fighting to make you chicken soup when you're sick. One strongly suggests rice noodles are the only way to fight what ails you, and the other says no, matzoh balls are the only thing that will make it all better. A compromise is made, and the result is rice noodles, shredded chicken, and hand-rolled matzoh balls in a flavorful chicken stock, a soup to rival all soups.
2. Anyone who knows me knows that The Hay Merchant is one of my favorite places in the city. How can you go wrong with craft beer and great food? Along with the pig ears, their caramelized fish sauce wings, or cánh gà chiên nước mắm, are the ideal complement to beer, and are actually ideal bar food, as these chicken pieces are quintessential Vietnamese street food. The wings are crispy and strike a perfect balance between sweetness and saltiness; they go best with a bitter IPA, and are finger-licking good.
1. The Vietnamese Steak and Eggs dish at Blacksmith brings back memories of weekends when my dad would often fry a couple of eggs along with whatever protein was left in the fridge, be it a piece of steak, Chinese sausage or Spam. With a couple of squirts of soy sauce and sriracha to mix in with the egg yolk, and a crunchy baguette to sop it all up with, it was one of the best things I ever ate. Blacksmith's version is more refined and elegant, but it's still homey. The cubes of perfectly cooked beef are sweet from a marinade that has hints of fish sauce and soy, and they're topped with two sunny-side up eggs sprinkled liberally with green onions and sesame seeds. Substitute the baguette with one of Blacksmith's addictive biscuits to really add some Houston to your Vietnamese.