Thiên Phú has been in my draft list for over 18 months. I wanted to write a post worthy of their dishes, but a proper post requires proper pictures, and either I was too hungry at the time or I just sucked at taking pictures at the time (I still suck now, but less than before) that every single picture was blurry like a blizzard. I was more concerned about food than food blogging so I didn’t snap many shots and didn’t check the clarity of the shots I took before digging in. I also didn’t know any photo editing. Basically, I was plain dumb.
At many points I thought about abandoning the post altogether, but we had a good meal that time and I even fed the birds in the parking lot while waiting for my friends to come join us. The birds were full, we were full. The restaurant was, as usual, empty except for us (because their menu is catered to large groups and wedding parties), so we got extra attention from the staff. Such memories kept me from deleting the draft that had nothing but terrible pictures. Then my parents came to the rescue when they revisited Thien Phu in the spring and took some luminous shots, like the beef and shrimp salad above and the seafood stir fry on rice below.
The salad, like most Vietnamese salads soaked in that half sweet, half tangy mixed fish sauce, was yummy. The seafood stir fry was nothing beyond expectation, they said, but at the very least, Thiên Phú brown sauce was not fattily thick like that goo in Phở Hà’s pan-fried phở. Dad’s vermicelli with stir fried beef was a good sweep, as evident from its picture.
If you’ve read my blog for long enough, you probably would notice that my dad almost never orders anything but beef, while Little Mom goes for shrimp or fish nine times out of ten. Naturally, Thien Phu ranks high in my parents’ list because their specialties are the 7 courses of beef and the whole grilled fish.
We’ve never tried all seven beef courses at once. We just choose a few that sound most savory, and for this party of 5, something shareable. Like beef that can be wrapped in rice paper and dipped in sauces. The chunky, fatty steamed beef balls (bò chả đùm) was broken into coarser bits to be scooped with a rice crackers or wrapped with lettuce. Razor-thin leaves of still red beef were dunked into heated vinegar for a simple, tender, and tangy completeness of bò nhúng dấm. Halved shrimps joined the beef in a similar fashion to make tôm nhúng dấm. Dad even dipped it in mắm nêm (ground anchovy sauce) to tighten the taste.
Then there’s the good old style of flopping beef slices on a hot black grill pan and hearing it sizzle while loading the wet rice paper with bean sprout, herbs, pickled radish and daikon. I also put a slice of unripe banana in my bò nướng vỉ roll because its cookie-like texture and clinging aftertaste are fun, although they don’t add much to the roll as a whole.
Leaving the blurry images of December 2009, we’re back to the present: grilled beef ball on rice. The marinade was sealed inside its smooth, gritty texture, each ball was so juicy it would shame a plump mango.
The seafood dishes are not subpar either. Loaded with shrimp, squid, and broccoli, mì hải sản (seafood noodle) had the sweetness of hủ tíu Nam Vang (Phnom Penh ka tieu) and the strength (and curly noodles) of ramen. The more broth we drank, the more delicious it got.
But there is one thing that everyone gets when they go to Thiên Phú: the crunchy-skin grilled fish (cá nướng da giòn). The whole catfish is enough for two by itself, grilled hiddenly in the kitchen until its skin breaks a crackling sound and glisters like topaz, then it’s brought out to you topped with crusted peanuts, cilantro and lime wedges. Its flesh stays white, juicy and soft. Roll up a side piece, you can savor its pristine, naturally sweet taste or dip it in nước mắm. The second grilled fish I had here this May was better than the one I had in December 2009, and so were their beef dishes. It’s good to see a good place gets better.
Just watch out for bones.
Address: Thiên Phú Restaurant
11360 Bellaire Blvd Ste 100
Houston, TX 77072
(in the same parking lot as Giò Chả Đức Hương)
Lunch for 5: $76.03