Vietnamese places usually don’t appear on the web, why? Because they already paid for ads on Vietnamese newspapers and radio station. Of course the ads are in Vietnamese. There are a little over 30,000 Vietnamese in Houston. It’s amazing how such a small community can sustain its numerous restaurants, with customers primarily themselves. I think I’ve said the word “Vietnamese” enough times for the month. But let me say it one more. Vietnamese must really like to eat out.
So we found a new address in one of the newspapers. We arrived past lunch time, so it felt as if we rented out the whole place. The hostesses seem to be enjoying their leisurely afternoon snack as well, they sat at a nearby table watching TV with us. A flat screen on the wall with documentary films about Vietnam.
Anyway, let’s start with an appetizer.
This is for 3 people to share. Each bánh bèo (water fern bánh) is like a really thin mini rice-pancake, steamed instead of fried, topped with dried shrimp powder, scallions, and guess what, mung bean paste (once again, Mr. Mung Bean won the competition and became Paste of Choice). The final and most important touch is the nước mắm (fish extract sauce). Bánh bèo, like other Central Vietnamese dishes, cannot go without nước mắm. I’m not exactly sure what the coconut milk is doing there. The thinner the pancake is, the harder it is to eat with chopsticks, or any kind of utensils you can think of, because it’s slippery and fragile like jello. But only the thinnest kind is the best kind. Too thick, and all there is is a block of utmost boring rice pudding. So, I’d say these were above average. Onto the main course.
Bánh tầm bì thịt nướng (bánh tầm with shredded pork skin (bì) and grilled pork). I’m confused by the Vietnamese naming system sometimes, there’s not much “bánh”-ness about this cold udon-like noodle. Authentically it should be shorter and fatter. They really gave us a behemoth bowl here, filled with noodle, peanuts, sliced pork skin (bì), and veggie, but only one skewer of pork! A little blackened. Good pork though. Can crispy-edge grilled pork ever not taste good?
Bánh canh cua (bánh canh with crab). Yet another rice noodle variation, strangely named “bánh”. I think this restaurant uses the same type of noodle for the soup and the grilled pork dish above. The orange color is from gạch cua (something under the crab shell whose English name I know not). The mysterious substance supposedly is stirred in frying pan until gooey and gives the broth a natural sweetness. I’m not big on sea crawlers. My mom likes it.
Bánh hỏi thịt nem nướng (bánh hỏi with grilled pork and grilled nem – a kind of pork sausage). It’s among the more expensive dishes in Saigon and the abroad, but cheap in the provinces where it was first made. The intricate nets of rice vermicelli gives the tongue a fun texture. Chopped scallions swiftly stir-fried with olive oil and a tad salt gives the sleek taste. Generous sum of sliced cucumber, bean sprout, pickled carrots and the backyard herbs counterbalances the carcinogenic charred and brined meat. Nước mắm is also a must. This plate rightfully makes the restaurant’s name.
Bánh hỏi Châu Đốc
Lunch for three: Bánh bèo tôm cháy: 4.95, bánh canh thịt cua: 6.95, bánh hỏi thịt nem nướng: 9.95, bánh tầm bì thịt nướng: 7.95. Total: $29.80.
Address: 10800 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77072.
If I recall correctly, the menu does have brief English descriptions, and the young waiter seemed more comfortable speaking English than Vietnamese.