Where To Eat The Best Vietnamese In Houston
Chicken & Mushroom Ravioli “Banh Cuon” and Crispy Shrimp & Pork Roll “Chả giò” at Le Colonial. Photograph by Mr Michael Anthony, courtesy of Le Colonial
There’s an old joke told in Texas about the difference between the state’s three major cities. “Austin has the music; Dallas has the TV show… and Houston has the problem.”
More than 50 years since astronaut Mr Jim Lovell radioed mission control to report that infamous “problem” with Apollo 13 – and 25 years since Mr Tom Hanks echoed his words on the silver screen – Houston is still inextricably linked with Nasa in the minds of many. Take a closer look at “Space City”, however, and you’ll find a vibrant southern metropolis bursting with creative energy and artistic flair – and showcasing some heavyweight food credentials as a result.
Officially the most diverse city in the US, Houston’s restaurant scene reflects a medley of multifarious tastes, techniques and traditions – and is especially renowned for Vietnamese food.
From Downtown to the Heights, River Oaks to Montrose, these are the Vietnamese restaurants that have captured the hearts (and appetites) of locals in the nation’s fourth largest city.
Panang Curry “Bo Cari” at Le Colonial. Photograph by Mr Michael Anthony, courtesy of Le Colonial
Classy and well-appointed, Le Colonial is a stylish recreation of 1920s French-era Vietnam. It’s the kind of upscale joint you could imagine Mr Humphrey Bogart gliding into, tossing his fedora onto the hatstand as he orders the bo bam cay. The fire-cracker beef is a feisty choice here – the standout from an authentic yet finessed Vietnamese menu. Other must-orders include the bo luc lac, or shaking beef – caramelised filet mignon stir-fried to perfection with sweet onions, watercress and lime pepper vinaigrette – and the fat, crispy shrimp and pork rolls, which are moreish to the extreme. Just ensure you save a little space for the vanilla crème brûlée.
4444 Westheimer Road, TX 77027
The Blind Goat
Sticky Wings at The Blind Goat. Photo courtesy of Snapbox Studio/The Blind Goat
The brainchild of the extraordinary Ms Christine Hà – the young, legally blind MasterChef winner – The Blind Goat is a relative newcomer to the Houston food scene, but already a local favourite. Positioned at the centre of Bravery Chef Hall, a buzzy indoor market close to the heart of Downtown, it has a casual gastropub vibe which belies the aspirations of its menu. Hà has taken the traditional Vietnamese recipes of her parents’ generation and given them a modern spin, coming up with delights such as smoked brisket fried rice and prawn and potato fritters. Also not to be missed is the “Rubbish Apple Pie” – a desert laced with traditional Vietnamese spices and named after one of Hà’s many televised altercations with Mr Gordon Ramsay. Above all, The Blind Goat’s vibe is built on nhau – a Vietnamese term which translates as “drinking and eating with friends”. So, pull up a stool at the counter, grab a drink and tuck in.
409 Travis Street #367, TX 77002
Smoked Beef Cheek Dumplings in Spicy Lemongrass “Bún Bò Huê” sauce at Xin Chao. Photograph by Mr Shawn Chippendale
Another Christine Hà project, this time in collaboration with fellow Vietnamese-Texan chef Mr Tony Nguyen, Xin Chào is an achingly cool temple of smoky fusion. The menu – think smoked beef rib flat rice noodles, braised pork belly bao buns and smoked beef cheek dumplings – marries the smouldering delights of Texan BBQ with the fresh spices of traditional Vietnamese cooking. Xin Chào has a bustling Williamsburg-esque patio out front and a fun tiki-style bar within, serving Vietnamese twists on classic cocktails, including the Saigon Old Fashioned (mixed with tamarind and black walnut bitters) and the MoVIETo – a twist on the mojito, with lemongrass and Thai basil.
2310 Decatur Street, TX 77007
The Signature House Blend with Garlic Butter and Cajun at Crawfish Café. Photograph by Mr Shawn Chippendale
One of the biggest offshoots of the current Vietnamese food revolution in Houston has been Viet-Cajun fusion. Specifically, Viet-Cajun crawfish, which have become nothing short of an eating phenomenon down here. Dozens of restaurants have popped up in the last couple of years, selling the crustaceans bathed in citrus and garlicky butter. But the pick of the crop is Crawfish Café in the well-heeled Heights neighbourhood. Here, owner Mr Kiet Duong offers carefully spiced crawfish in nine flavours (if it’s your first time, go for “The Signature”, a delicious blend of garlic butter and Cajun spices). And definitely don’t turn down the plastic bib and gloves: there’s an art to eating crawfish, and until you get the twisting, cracking and pulling down to perfection, you’re going to need protection.
1026 North Shepherd Drive, TX 77008
Hot and spicy Vietnamese beef noodle soup “Bún Bò Huê” at Mai’s. Photograph by Mr Shawn Chippendale
A Houston institution, Mai’s opened way back in the late 1970s, and continues to be a popular, family-run restaurant today. Beloved of Mr Anthony Bourdain, who filmed here on multiple occasions (and whose face adorns the wall today), it serves traditional, hearty Vietnamese fare par excellence. From its hot and spicy beef noodle soup, bum bo hue, to its warming (and famously hangover-quenching) beef brisket and meatball pho. Ms Mai Nguyen herself, who was a little girl when her parents named the restaurant after her in 1978, still runs the show, with more than 100 dishes to choose from on the extensive menu, not to mention one of the best Vietnamese coffees in town.
3403 Milam Street, TX 77002
Thien An Sandwiches
Pho with beefballs “Phở Tái Bò Viên” at Thien Ann Sandwhiches. Photograph by Mr Shawn Chippendale
The name of this welcoming midtown joint is somewhat misleading. Yes, Thien An serves outstanding Vietnamese sandwiches, with fresh ingredients crammed into enormous French-style crusty rolls. But the menu is about so much more than that. It would be a crime, for instance, to come here and not order the bánh xèo, a gargantuan crispy pancake, stuffed with pork, shrimp, onion and beansprout. Or the signature spring rolls, with pork, shrimp and crab packed into every perfectly rolled bite. Or indeed the pho dac biet, a delicious twist on the traditional noodle soup, containing eight different types of meat and an immodest amount of freshly chopped garlic. It might not be as flashy as some of its rivals, but Thien An, which means “blessings from above”, does all of the basics to perfection, and at reassuringly down to Earth prices.
2611 San Jacinto Street, TX 77004
Where to stay
The city of Houston, which covers an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to accommodation. But your first port of call should be La Colombe d’Or, a luxury, art-packed boutique hotel in an old oil baron’s mansion from the 1920s, situated at the heart of Houston’s hippest neighbourhood, Montrose. For those keen to stay downtown, the four-star Sam Houston Hotel offers exceptional value a stone’s throw from bustling Main Street. While those in search of a more relaxed, peaceful vibe should look no further than Houston’s grand dame, The Houstonian, which sits in 27 acres on the edge of verdant Memorial Park.