Chef Chat

Where the Chefs Eat: Tony J. Nguyen of Saigon House Midtown

Tony J. Nguyen is the executive chef and partner at Saigon House Midtown.
Tony J. Nguyen is the executive chef and partner at Saigon House Midtown. Photo by Robert Le
From 2012 to 2014, Houston Press ran a series called “Where the Chefs Eat,” (you can re-visit the entire series here) in which we asked some of Houston's most prominent chefs where they ate when they weren’t cooking in their own kitchens. Though it ran its natural course at the time, so much has changed in the Houston landscape since then that we’re bringing it back. For the new series, we’ll be putting the spotlight on one chef at a time. Want to find out where Houston chefs eat and some pro tips along the way? Come back often to discover the restaurants and dishes that spark joy for Bayou City's best toques.

Born and raised in Houston, 30-year-old Tony J. Nguyen grew up in Southeast Houston in what he describes as "the Vietnamese projects" in Park Place, the youngest of three siblings. From the time he was a kid, he would cook for his family. It started out with simple dishes like fried eggs and spam, and progressed to things like fried fish or braised pork thit kho. Graduating from Yes Prep Public, he got a full ride to attend Syracuse University, where he majored in hospitality management and graduated cum laude.

After a few years in New York City, where he got a job as a manager at Japanese BBQ house Gyu-Kaku, he moved back to Houston to help take care of his mother, who’d become ill. Back in Houston, he joined his brother-in-law and a friend to start the popular gourmet food truck, Wokker Texas Ranger (renamed Wokker), which specialized in Southern food with an Asian twist. Three years into the project, he and his partners wanted to go in different directions, so they parted ways.

It was at this time that he was given the opportunity to become chef-partner in the flailing Saigon House Midtown. The restaurant had sustained significant flood damage during Hurricane Harvey, and had to be gutted. Nguyen’s mother worked alongside him to rebuild the restaurant. Her recipes inform much of his cooking there, though he’s taken the reigns to put his own spin on things, which include a gourmet pho menu featuring a decadent oxtail broth, and what would become Saigon House’s claim to fame: Their Viet-Cajun crawfish.

In 2018, Saigon House won the Houston Press annual award for Best Vietnamese restaurant as well as Best Pho. Nguyen has gone on to win several local food competitions, including 8th Wonder Brewery’s Great Taco Challenge and the OCA’s Big Bao Battle. Later this year, if all goes according to plan, Nguyen will debut a second of Saigon House on FM 1960.

Here’s where the self-taught chef likes to eat around H-town, in his own words: 
Standard Go-to’s:
Gyro King: When I was the manager at Gyu-Kaku in New York City, the commute to work would always require a subway ride and a long walk. Walking in the busy streets, the smell of charcoal grilled meats would fight its way through the crowd and hit me with an idea for lunch. The Halal food carts are a staple in New York and has this distinct scent permeating through the streets. Moving back to Houston to open up Wokker, an Asian-Texan food truck, I was still craving for that juicy lamb and chicken over rice with their signature red hot sauce and tangy creamy white sauce served alongside fresh veggies. Being in the industry, I work late hours. By the time I make it out, I do not have a lot of options to eat. Luckily, Gyro King is opened until 11 p.m. on weeknights and until 2 a.m. on the weekends! After a long day of work, Gyro King always hits the spot for me and the quality is incredibly consistent. I love ordering the lamb and chicken combo over rice, gyros, and falafel. Pro-Tip: To complete my meal, I order the amazingly refreshing Juice B made with freshly squeezed apple, beets, carrots, celery, ginger, and orange.
Thuan Kieu Com Tam: My travels across Viet Nam, especially my home city, I was able to eat a wide range of Vietnamese food. One dish that really stuck out to me was banh khot, a mini crispy shrimp rice pancake accompanied by fresh mustard leaves, herbs, and nuoc mam (fish sauce). This intricate dish is very labor intensive to make and only a few places have it in Houston. Seeing it made firsthand in Viet Nam with a line of lady ninjas wearing masks to cover themselves from the smoke and long sleeves to protect them from the intense open fire used to heat up large iron skillets with little pockets to fit each of the banh khot made me appreciate the dish even more. I love going to Thuan Kieu Com Tam for this dish and it's one of my favorite dishes in Houston. They serve banh khot hot off the griddle with that beautifully yellow tint from the turmeric complemented with the creaminess from the coconut milk. If you love playing with your food, this is definitely the dish for you! I love how hands-on and interactive it is when you pick up a banh khot, wrap it with fresh mustard leaves and herbs, dip it in the nuoc mam, and bite into that satisfying lively crunch and rich bold flavors all coming together in harmony. 
Cheap Eats:
Xin Jiang BBQ: Anytime I’m looking for quick and cheap eats, Xin Jiang BBQ's skewers “sticks” out for me. Being an adventurous eater, Xin Jiang BBQ has a wide assortment of exotic cuts of meat and grilled vegetables ranging from hearts, gizzards, tendons, and kidneys to oyster mushrooms, Enoki, dry bean curd, and eggplants. Like in the northwestern regions of China, this place marinates and seasons their exotic cuts well and charcoal grills them to perfection. My typical order consists of lamb ($11/10 skewers), beef fat tendon ($7.75/5 skewers), chicken heart ($5/5 skewers), chicken gizzard ($5/5 skewers), and Enoki ($1.19/2 skewers) with a bowl of rice. Xin Jiang BBQ is a great communal spot for various occasions, such as date nights, catching up with friends, or just a simple quick meal to enjoy during the weekday. Pro-Tip: Wear clothes that you don't mind retaining the smoky aromas of spices!

Taconmadre: Growing up in Texas, eating tacos is something that is a very comforting and extremely affordable meal in my regimen. Just as New York is known for their Halal or hot dog stands, Texas is known for our taco stands. Taconmadre is my favorite childhood taco truck because it brings back fond memories of me growing up scarfing down juicy and succulent array of meats in forms of tacos, gorditas, and quesadillas. Taconmadre offers a wide range of meats from fajita (beef), pastor (pork), barbacoa (Mexican style BBQ meats), and trompo (spinning top of meat similar to how shawarma is cooked). I usually order fresh corn tortilla tacos jam-packed with different selections of meats for only $1.50 each! Pro-Tip: For those who likes to crank up the heat, get the green salsa! To avoid the long lines, you can call in your order ahead of time for pick-up.
Lit BBQ (Location Changes Daily): In Houston, we are blessed to have outstanding barbecue shops all around town, but the one that I love that’s all Halal Texas-style BBQ on wheels is Lit BBQ. This is the first of its kind here in Houston with all the flavorful aspects of barbecue with less guilt! The brisket sandwiches have large chunks of tender meat that just melts in your mouth with each saucy bite. The smoked juicy chicken sandwiches topped with guacamole and pickled veggies paired with that decadent mac and cheese together are a winning combo!

For more of Where the Chefs Eat, see below:

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham