As a food writer of Vietnamese descent, introducing people to the food of my homeland has always been a point of pride for me. On a recent visit to Huynh restaurant in Houston’s East Downtown area, for instance, I watched in delight when a friend who was not familiar with Vietnamese food took a bite of the banh uot thit nuong – rice cake rolls filled with grilled pork – and immediately pronounced it “tasty!”
Banh uot thit nuong is not the typical introduction one might have to the pleasures of Vietnamese cuisine, however. Most people, when I ask them, “Are you familiar with Vietnamese food?” will answer something along the lines of “Well, I really like pho” or “I love those grilled pork banh mi sandwiches.”
I get it. There are pho shops and banh mi shops everywhere in Houston. But there is so much more to Vietnamese food than banh mi and pho. And you can find most of it in what is now the Little Saigon area of Chinatown — concentrated along Bellaire Boulevard between Beltway 8 and Highway 6 and nearby on Beechnut. I hope to introduce you to many of these dishes in this article.
First, a few words of context. Just like in Italy, where you’ll find regional differences in the cuisine when you travel from North to South, the characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine depend on the regionality of a specific dish. In general, Northern Vietnamese food tends to be saltier and more basic, with fewer frills. It is the birthplace of pho and dishes such as banh cuon (rolled rice cakes), cha ca (turmeric fish with dill) and xoi lap xuong (sticky rice with Chinese sausage).
Central Vietnam is the birthplace of bun bo Hue, a pork hock and beef noodle soup that is becoming increasingly more well known in Houston. The cuisine is spicier, and there are lots of small cakes, or banh, within this genre cuisine. My favorite of them all is banh beo chen (round rice cakes cooked in small saucers, topped with dried shrimp and pork). Other banh to try include banh nam (flat steamed rice dumplings), banh quai vac (glutinous dumplings filled with shrimp), banh it ram (glutinous stuffed dumplings topped with a fried dumpling, shown below) and banh bot loc (chewy tapioca dumplings filled with shrimp and wrapped in a banana leaf).
Southern Vietnamese cooking is the cuisine most closely associated with what we find in Houston. There are lots of mon an choi (appetizers) and mon nhau (Vietnamese tapas). The dishes tend to be a lot sweeter and many are meant to be shared. Specialties such as bo 7 mon (beef seven ways) and com phan gia dinh (Vietnamese family meals) are Southern in origin.
Now that you have a sense of where the food comes from, it’s time to eat. I’ve compiled a list of essential Vietnamese dishes and where to find them. Hopefully, it will inspire you to venture beyond pho and banh mi. Just remember to bring cash.
When you want to try Northern Vietnamese food:
Originating in the Red River Delta in Northeastern Vietnam, bun rieu is a noodle soup made with crab, tomato and thin rice vermicelli noodles. It is a wonderful dish with tons of umami and depth of flavor; it’s one of my favorite dishes to make and eat. Traditionally, it’s made with fresh-water crab that is pounded into a paste. The juices from the crab form the basis of the broth, while the paste cooks to form a sort of curdled cake that floats on top. When crab is not available, dried shrimp is often used as a substitute and mixed with egg. Most of the restaurants in Houston use blue crab to make the dish. In addition to tomato, other soup toppings include fried tofu and blood cubes. You can also get versions of this dish with sea snails (bun rieu oc) or vegetarian (bun rieu chay).
Where to try bun rieu
Bun Viet Son, 6796 Synott Rd., 281-561-5800
Rieu Cua, 12319 Bellaire Blvd., 832-486-9478 (serves bun rieu oc)
Viet Huong, 11209 Bellaire Blvd., 832-351-3655
San San Tofu, 6445 Wilcrest, 281-988-5666 (serves bun rieu chay)
Banh cuon (“rolled cake”) are steamed paper-thin rice-flour sheets that are rolled either with or without filling. The most popular kind is banh cuon nhan thit (rolled cake with meat), stuffed with a minced pork and wood ear mushroom filling. You can also get them plain (banh cuon thanh tri), with shrimp (banh cuon tom) or filled with grilled pork (banh cuon thit nuong). While you can order them at any number of Vietnamese restaurants, the best versions will be at specialty banh cuon houses. Enjoy them at brunch or lunch.
Where to try banh cuon
Thien Thanh, 11210 Bellaire Blvd., 281-564-0419
Banh Cuon Hoa, 11169 Beechnut, 281-495-9556
Bun mang vit (shown above) is another noodle soup, this one made with bamboo shoots and duck. It’s usually served as a clear yellow consommé with strips of duck and bamboo floating in it. Traditionally, it is served with nuoc mam gung (ginger fish sauce). In Houston, you can order this dish with duck salad on the side. When you do so, you’ll get a big bowl of consommé with rice vermicelli and bamboo and a lightly seasoned side salad with duck and shredded cabbage.
Where to try bun mang vit
Bun Mang Vit Thanh Da, 11526 Bellaire Blvd., 281-495-9039
Com Ga Houston, 11505 Bellaire Blvd., 832-230-0065
Bun cha Hanoi is a specialty from Hanoi that consists of chargrilled pork patties and chargrilled pork marinated in a diluted fish sauce, with rice vermicelli noodles and a big plate of vegetables on the side. There has been a lot of interest in this dish lately, not only because it is one of Hanoi’s most recognized dishes, but because Anthony Bourdain introduced President Barack Obama to the dish in the Hanoi episode of his TV program, Parts Unknown. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a really stellar example of this dish in Houston. However, if you want to try it, you can find acceptable versions at both Thien Thanh and Banh Cuon Hoa, listed above under “banh cuon.”
Cha ca (shown above) is a famous Northern Vietnamese dish consisting of small slabs of white fish marinated in turmeric and galangal, topped with dill and served with rice vermicelli noodles, peanuts, crispy puffed rice paper and a diluted fish paste sauce known as mam ruoc. The most famous version, at Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi, Vietnam, is served raw so that you can fry the fish at the table. The dish is often translated in English as “turmeric fish with dill” because of the key ingredients. In Houston, this dish is hard to come by, but in Chinatown, you can try it at Thien Thanh, listed above under “banh cuon.” Outside of Chinatown, Chris Shepherd offers a play on this dish made with turmeric and yogurt at his restaurant, Underbelly.
When you want to try Central Vietnamese food:
Bun bo Hue is a pork hock and beef noodle soup from the central Vietnamese region of Hue. To make it, pork hocks and beef bones are simmered for hours with ingredients like lemongrass, garlic, annatto seeds, shrimp paste and chili to create this hearty, flavor-bomb of a noodle soup. The noodles are a thick rice vermicelli noodle similar to Japanese udon. It is served with sliced pork hocks, sliced beef shank, beef sausage and blood cubes, with a side of shredded cabbage, lime and chili on the side. One of the most savory and complex-tasting noodle soups, bun bo Hue is a Vietnamese classic, something you’ll get hard cravings for once you try it. You can find several excellent bowls in Chinatown.
Where to try bun bo Hue
Bun Bo Hue Duc Chuong, 11415 Bellaire Blvd., 832-351-2622
Bun Bo Hue Duc Chuong Midnite, 12148 Bellaire Blvd., 832-351-2644
Bun Viet Son, 6796 Synott Rd., 281-561-5800
Banh beo chen (shown below) are glutinous rice cakes that are steamed in small saucers. They are usually topped with shrimp, pork skin chicharrón, onion and/or fried shallots and are typically delivered to the table on a tray, with anywhere from nine to 12 cakes, a small bowl of nuoc mam pha (diluted fish sauce) and a small spoon. To eat them, pick up one of the saucers and drizzle some nuoc mam pha on top. Using the spoon, cut around the edges of the cake to loosen it from the saucer, then either cut it in half or plop the entire cake in your mouth. Restaurants that serve banh beo chen will usually serve a myriad of other savory rice cakes (you can spot them because their names all start with banh) that are worth trying as well.
Where to try banh beo chen
Nam Giao, 6938 Wilcrest, 281-568-4888
Dong Ba,10815 Beechnut, Ste. 147, 281-498-6520
Mi quang is a popular noodle dish from the central region made of flat, wide turmeric yellow noodles in a scant pork and shrimp broth. The proportion of the broth makes it more of a sauce than a soup. Toppings include pork or pork belly, shrimp, peanuts and crisped puff rice paper sheets known as banh da. When done right, this dish displays beautiful umami and complexity in terms of textures and unique flavors. It’s good when you want a light lunch.
Where to try mi quang
Pho Duy, 6968 Wilcrest, Ste. F, 281-879-9899
Bun Cha Ca Da Nang, 12168 Bellaire Blvd., 281-741-9455
When you want to try Southern Vietnamese food:
Bo 7 mon, or beef seven ways, is one of my father’s favorite things. It’s a set-course menu of seven different Vietnamese beef dishes that I’ve been eating since I was a teenager and the first restaurant of its type opened in Orange County, California. In Houston, the most famous restaurant for this Southern Vietnamese specialty is Saigon Pagolac. Your meal begins with bo nhung dam (beef carpaccio that you dip in boiling vinegar), followed by a beef sate dish that you grill over a sizzling plate at the table. Then you will get four beef dishes often served side by side on the plate. Three of them – bo la lot (grilled ground beef wrapped in betel leaves), bo nuong mo chai (grilled meatball wrapped in caul fat) and bo sate (beef rolls grilled with sate sauce) – are meant to be eaten as rice roll wraps. Fresh vegetables and dry rice papers with bowls of hot water are provided so that you can create your own wraps at the table. The fourth dish, cha dum, is meatball served with crispy shrimp chips, wherein you break off a piece of the chip and pile it high with meatball, before taking a bite. The two final dishes are a beef salad and beef alphabet soup.
Ringing in at less than $20 per person, this is one of the tastiest and most inexpensive tasting menus in town. Other popular items that go with bo 7 mon include whole grilled fish, or ca nuong, which is usually ordered separately as a supplement to the seven courses. A spinoff version made with fish – ca 8 mon (fish eight ways) – is also served at Jasmine Asian Cuisine.
Where to try bo 7 mon
Saigon Pagolac, 9600 Bellaire Blvd., Ste. 119, 713-988-6106
Jasmine Asian Cuisine, 9938 Bellaire Blvd., 713-272-8188
You can find restaurants that do com phan gia dinh, or Vietnamese family meal, at numerous restaurants in Chinatown. The family meal is made up of typical dishes that one would eat at home in Southern Vietnam, humble dishes that any home cook can make. The set price on the menus, which are usually offered for two, four, six and larger parties, are extremely affordable. This is the type of meal you have when you want home cooking but don’t want to lift a finger in the kitchen. The set menu always comes with a Vietnamese salad known as goi, a sour fish soup called canh chua made with either fish or shrimp, a caramelized fish-in-clay-pot dish known as ca kho to and a steamed chicken and ginger dish called ga hai nam. As the size of the party increases, more dish selections are offered, which can be something like dau hu nhoi (stuffed tofu) or chep chep xao ot (pepper sautéed mussels).
Where to try com phan gia dinh
Thuan Kieu Com Tam, 10792 Bellaire Blvd., 281-988-8865
Pho Ngon, 10780 Bellaire Blvd., 281-564-8887
Thanh Da Quan, 13090 Bellaire Blvd., 281-988-9089
In Vietnam, the Southern Vietnamese have a reputation for going out and having fun. Hence, they spend a lot of time with friends at places that serve the Vietnamese equivalent of American bar food, known as mon nhau. There are crispy chicken wings at some of those places, to be sure, but more often than not, you’ll get a lot of items like oc len xao dua (sea snails in coconut sauce), ngeo hap (steamed clams with fish sauce, shown above) or crispy fried pig intestines, which are delicious with beer.
Where to try mon nhau
Giau Bar n Bites, 9889 Bellaire Blvd., e200, 713-988-8988
One Hot Pot & Grill, 12148 Bellaire Blvd., #112, 281-564-4063
Vibe Lounge, 968 Wilcrest, 281-575-0440