*Guest post in Vietnamese by my Mom, translated by me*
There are two places with the name Thanh Đa in Bellaire. One is Bún Măng Vịt Thanh Đa (Thanh Đa vermicelli soup with bamboo shoot and duck), and the other is Thanh Đa Quán. We happen to choose Thanh Đa Quán for lunch today, partly because they have the family dining option, which is rare in the States. The reason, I can only guess, is that most people who eat out like to pick their own items, or go to buffets if they don’t know what to pick. Family style lies between these two options, where the restaurant decides for the diners a fix menu (for example, Thanh Da Quan gives 4 dishes for 2 people, 5 dishes for 4 people, or 6 dishes for 6 people). The total bill for family dining usually comes out higher than a buffet ticket but lower than a combination of single plates.
The diner is small but neatly organized, the seating arrangement is comfortable, and they have but four TV screens in the four corners. Two of them are tuned to American news and shows, the other two Vietnamese documentaries and movies, always a plus for me. (I’m not so fond of places that make the customers watch boring football games or unlaughable comedies.) Another thing I like about this particular joint is its staff’s friendliness, not a common thing at Vietnamese eateries. The waiting boys and girls, all small in age and size, have this casually gentle and respectful way toward even customers like me, who order to-gos and don’t give tips. The boy who brought out my order also apologizes profusely for the long wait, though I’ve actually enjoyed watching TV in those brief 20 minutes. 🙂 (The kitchen, he says, would gladly prepare the order for a speedy pickup if I call ahead.)
The good feeling from Thanh Đa Quán follows us home as we open the styrofoam boxes. There are a bit too few pieces of boiled duck, but all are tender and the accompanying not-so-spicy ginger mixed nuoc mam makes up in taste.
The lotus stem salad, a crunch-chewy bundle of lotus stems, shredded cucumber, celery, shrimp and boiled pork, is also not as spicy as its cousins from other restaurants. The apparent touch of lime gives the salad a refreshing boost, dusted with crushed roasted peanuts for occasional unconformities. It’s sour, but nowhere near as sour as the sour soup, which the chefs at Thanh Đa Quán must have made an effort to keep it true to its name. The fish slices are subtly luscious, the night-scented lily stems (doc mung) are airy and brightly green (I wonder how they get these so fresh in this icy winter weather), but nothing can hide the unforgiving, piercing acidity. I retreat to the pot and the stove: a re-seasoning is in order. Fortunately, sugar helps. It’s still the same fish, same pineapple, same tomato, same doc mung, same okra, but a few spoonfuls of sugar transform the soup from a duckling to a swan.
On the other hand, the clay pot fish is flawless. Two light golden catfish steaks shine in a thick bronze sauce, scenting off a homely wisp of nuoc mam and a caring embrace of caramelized sugar. Not overtly fatty, salty, or peppery, this clay pot fish is the epiphany of the Vietnamese marinating and simmering art. My daughter doesn’t like fish, but I’ll make sure to make her try this one next time she’s in town. It warms my heart realizing that even in this very American state of Texas, such simple yet articulate, inexpensive but valuable taste of my faraway homeland is still perfectly tuned.
Address: Thanh Đa Quán (Alief)
13090 Bellaire Blvd
Houston, TX 77407