By the time we arrived in Houston, my husband Rory and I were hankering for Viet food. I had been traveling for a week and hadn’t had a drop of fish sauce or bowl of rice. After all the amazing barbecue and Mexican food, we were looking forward to a change of cuisine. Plus, Houston’s Vietnamese community is one of the nation’s largest, the biggest in the American South.
I was looking forward to driving up and down Bellaire Boulevard, the H-Town equivalent to Bolsa Avenue in Westminster, California. While there are a few Vietnamese restaurants in the main downtown area where we were staying, the concentration of the Viet shops and services were located in the southwestern part of the city, in what’s referred to as Chinatown. Most of the activity is centered on Bellaire, the main drag. (The former Chinatown was located in the main downtown area but increases in real estate prices drove Asian businesses further out.)
We regrettably only had one-and-a-half days in Houston, and our exploration was limited to Friday afternoon. What struck me as really neat was that at one end of Bellaire, there seemed to be more Chinese businesses with a few Viet ones but as you drove toward Alief, it was reversed. Business signs mostly had Vietnamese and English with just a tiny sprinkling of Chinese characters.
There were a number of handsome, modern shopping centers as well as near-vacant shopping centers from decades ago. With palm trees lining some areas, it reminded me lots of Little Saigon in Southern California. I felt quite at home, but experienced some unexpected things.
Big and Bling
They say that everything is bigger in Texas and it’s true! The shopping centers, markets, restaurants seemed on average much larger than what I’d seen in other parts of the country. The Hong Kong City Mall (11021 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77072) is gigantic. We were there mid-day on a Friday and found it to be sleepy, though the blazing heat outside may have had something to do with it! The mall is arguably the center of the Viet shopping area on Bellaire. Look for it by the iconic signage at the top of this post.
There’s been much talk about the food court at the mall but I found it to be somewhat dark and depressing. There was one table of women digging into a pile of crawfish from Crawfish and Beignets. The stand-alone restaurants in other parts of the maze of the mall seemed more appealing and had more customers. Next time, I’d venture to the food court on a weekend when it’s really jumping.
The Hong Kong Market attached to the mall is huge – like the size of a football field. The above photos don't quite do it justice. The market is a great resource for the community to shop for Asian ingredients.
I was surprised to see all the convenient grab-and-go foods in cases; the set up was more like a regular market because you can buy not just little snacks but combo types of meals in plastic containers. The approach was akin to the deli section of a supermarket. Superstores such as this one have shelf space to carry all kinds of goodies. For example, a visitor to this site recently reported finding bonafide Vietnamese fish sauce at the Hong Kong Market in Houston! (That would not have fit into my carryon luggage.)
Leaving the Hong Kong City Mall, we spotted the largest Lee’s Sandwiches in the nation. It had an American-style drive-thru with a flashy lit up menu. I don't know of any other Vietnamese drive-through restaurant, do you?Turns out that the Bellaire location of Lee’s Sandwiches occupies 10,000 square feet. Wow.
Texas is a colorfully decorated state (remember the décor at Mi Tierra in San Antonio?) and a couple of Viet eateries at the mall had really shiny silver metal chairs. The chairs made everything around them sparkle. Another restaurant (specializing in bun bo Hue, I believe) had a green interior with a big Jesus statue presiding over diners.
Religious and Cultural Diversity
The public display of religious beliefs also surprised me. A fair number of Vietnamese Catholics immigrated to the southern part of the U.S., which explains the Christian statues for sale along with Buddhas, etc. On the other hand, the humongous Teo Chew (Chiu Chow) temple hard to miss as you’re driving down Bellaire. I was so struck by its enormity that I had Rory turn around and find it on what turned out to be Turtlewood Court.
Then there was the astoundingly large Vietnam War monument with a statue of a Vietnamese soldier standing next to an American soldier. The centerpiece of a newish shopping center, the monument was clearly visible from Bellaire. While I expected to see the South Vietnamese flag and the American flag flying together, I didn’t expect to see the flags of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines too. It was really cool and completely matter-of-fact.
To top it off, at Café Don, where I ordered banh mi sandwiches, the non-Asian cashier (above, in the yellow shirt) spoke Vietnamese. When an order was up for a Viet woman, he loudly called to her, “Chi oi, banh mi thit nuong!” (Sister, your grilled pork sandwich). His intonation were spot on. Seriously.
Fresh and Honest Food
How was the banh mi at Cafe Don? Well done but the bread could have been more crisp and the pickled carrots and daikon were mostly carrot, which lacks the bite of the radish. I ordered the dac biet expecting the works but it lacked the pate; however, the other cold cuts in the sandwich were nicely prepared. My husband’s grilled pork banh mi was surprisingly bland.
Nevertheless, the scene was something else. The two Viet ladies behind the counter worked lightning fast to satisfy customers who ranged in age, race, and ethnicity. One guy came from the back kitchen with a half pan piled high with meat. We chased down the sandwich with an ice coffee, watching the customers keep streaming in.
I didn’t have time to explore markets other than the Hong Kong Market but felt like it was pretty representative of the Houston selection of Asian groceries. While the size of the market was on part with say, the Shun Fat Superstores in California, I was struck by how most of the produce at the Hong Kong Market was not pre-bagged.
An Asian produce department manager once told me that bagging Asian vegetables prevented customers from rummaging through the selection and destroying it for the next customers in line. The range of produce was similar to other Asian markets that I have visited, although in the American South, you can often get fresh banana leaves. It was great to see a pile of them at the market.
The seafood counter included a few things not often seen in my neck of the woods, such as whelk and mudfish (ca loc). The fish can be used for tart fish soup (canh chua ca), pickled fish (mam ca loc), and grilled turmeric fish (cha ca). The whelk can be steamed, stuffed, or simmered into a noodles soup. I wished I had an H-Town kitchen to cook some of that seafood.
Though we were on Bellaire for a couple of hours, a banh mi was not enough. We also had to have pho. Tucked in the back of the Hong Kong City Mall was Pho Danh, which was doing a brisk business. The wait staff all had uniforms and name tags, which I’d never seen in the U.S. The pho came out quickly but not too fast, which was nice. It was fantastic tasting, on the salty rather than sweet side. The noodles were easily separated and not clumpy as if they’d been sitting in the bowl for too long before the broth was ladled on top.
The broth was well balanced and savory, but the outstanding part of the bowl at Pho Danh was the cooked meat. Texas has really good beef and the cooked beef in the pho was exceptional. We ate the pho with relish, emptying our bowls, MSG high be damned. (We didn't suffer one!)
I went to Texas as a blank slate and returned home filled with glee, knowing that there are many good stewards of food in the Lone Star State. Before going on this trip, I didn’t give Texas much thought but now, I’m looking for a reason to visit again!
P.S. Reef was fabulous for seafood and Vic and Anthony’s offered exceptional steaks. Mi Tiempo, El Real, and Hugo’s will have to wait for the next Houston trip.
If you're familiar with Houston and have a favorite Asian market or café/restaurant (Asian or not), let the rest of us in on your picks.
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