Hương Giang – Savour Huế in Houston

    I lost my memory card. If you’re a food blogger too you’d know how devastated I felt: the first advice to a food blogger these days is “good pictures”. Well, the pictures I took at Hương Giang are amazing, they just no longer exist. But, pictures or not, as my professor Lawrence Hall would say in his British tongue, “you can’t stop me,” or in this case, I can’t stop myself from blogging about the restaurant.

    Is their food that good? Hương Giang takes a shy, small square in the parking lot at the corner of Bellaire and Boone. If you drive westward on Bellaire Blvd, you’ll see its sign on the left before you reach Hong Kong Market. It’s really a tucked-away place for scoffers, the outlook unimpressive, the sign blue and white like a tired worker shirt. The inside is similar to any average pho joints you’ve seen, wiped clean and plastic cheap. I knew my mom wouldn’t come here if not for blogging’s sake, but in this city it’d be hard to get a menu more Huế than this one.

    There are pictures in the menu and printouts taped to the wall to tell you what the specials are. For us it’s a matter of getting what we’ve heard of but not had: gỏi mít tôm thịt, bánh ít ram, cơm hến, and bún suông.

    Gỏi mít tôm thịt is jackfruit salad with boiled shrimp and pork, and like other Vietnamese gỏi, it’s served cold with rice cracker (bánh tráng nướng) for shoveling and scooping. The airy blandness of a coal-toasted sesame rice paper elevates the lime juice, the pepper, the cilantro in a gỏi. The kitchen makes a slight mistake by bringing out a plate of gỏi mít hến instead, where the boiled pork and shrimp are replaced by handfuls of tiny basket clams (hến). These freshwater bivalves are connected to Huế like McDonald’s to Americanization. As small as a finger nail, each hến constitutes a second of chewing. As a stir-fried bunch mixed with young jackfruit flesh, the collection feels grainy and humble like a fisherman’s kitchen by the riverside. The color, too, is earthy: blackish-lined ivory hến,  pale brown jackfruit, and a bit of green cilantro.

    Cơm hến offers more or less the same atmosphere as the salad, except the rice amplifies the grainy texture in place of the jackfruit’s fleshy blend, no rice cracker presents to break the unanimity, and the hến‘s natural sweetness here isn’t damped by any lime juice. When there isn’t just a few, but at least a hundred of these quiet lives in a bowl of cơm hến, you can’t help but feel the responsibility to treasure each spoonful. It’s the least you can do for the dignity of those tiny freshwater basket clams.

    If cơm hến were hamburger, then bánh ít ram would be mac ‘n cheese. It’s not super well known, but anyone who knows Hue food knows this sticky (rice) business. I first learned of bánh ít ram from noodlepie, Ravenous Couple call them fried mochi dumpling (and you really can’t get a better looking picture of bánh ít ram than what the couple styled on their site). Each ping-pong-sized dumpling carries a marvelously inviting look: a plump, shiny round ball on a golden base, cut in half and there snuggle rosy bits of shrimp and char siu pork. Each bite is a step into a river: first soft, then sinking, then hitting the crusty bottom. With or without the mixed fish sauce, savory bánh ít ram, also called bánh ram ít by the natives, is a fair partnership between the steamed bánh ít and the deep fried bánh ram, with each component designed to excite the other. So why is it not as popular as bánh bèo? Because it’s hard to go down the second time. One bánh ít ram is good, two are too many. Ten on a plate, like what we get at Hương Giang, becomes a bloody battlefield.

    Thankfully we are a team of three, and we rotates plates to share both the good and the challenging. And thankfully we get bún suông. This noodle soup draws a fine but successful line between being too meaty and being too thin, as it contains both. Ample cuts of chả cá (fish cake, similar to eomuk), chả lụa (silk sausage), and juicy shrimps weave among the angel hair rice vermicelli, all soaked in a slim sweet broth. Bún suông at Hương Giang tastes pure like bún mộc, quite a contrast from the definitions I’ve found online, whose broth is as thick as a deep South accent of the cooks said to invent the noodle soup.

    If there are indeed two types of bún suông, the southern style and the Hương Giang style, then I’d choose the latter any day. If the southern style is really the only traditional style, then I’d go to Hương Giang just for their bún suông. You know you can trust a chef who has created something so delicate, so heart-warming, so balanced, and so very Huế.

    Address: Hue Huong Giang (near Hong Kong Market)
    11113 Bellaire Boulevard
    Houston, TX 77072-2607
    (832) 328-1308

    Money matter:
    gỏi mít hến (6.25) + bánh ít ram (6.50) + bún suông (6.50) + cơm hến (8.50)
    = $27.25 a big lunch for three

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