July 12th, 2011
Belt-Busting Bender: Midtown Vietnamese Sandwiches
The next time you’re headed into Midtown to swill adult beverages at one of the many bars in the area, take a moment to glance up at the street signs. If accent-laden lettering subtitles the street name you’re speeding down, then you’ve stumbled into Little Saigon, Houston’s official Vietnamese District. Don’t feel bad if you never noticed before. I lived in Midtown for months before it really registered. But I have since learned that if you find yourself near one of those indecipherable street signs, chances are you’re within strolling distance of a Vietnamese sandwich shop. These understated restaurants thrive with loyal clientele who consistently return for authentic cuisine at rock-bottom prices. We’re talking cheap. So cheap, it’ll make you bitter when you think of all those college years you spent subsisting on fast food bargain menus when you could have been feasting on Vietnamese fare for about the same price. In an effort to seek out the best of these little gems, I’ve given myself a mission: Five days, five Vietnamese sandwich shops, all the noodles and Pho and spring rolls I can stand.
Day One – Cali Sandwich
I walked into Cali’s corner location in a shopping strip on Travis, fully intending to place a quickie takeout order and haul it on home. But the bright, wide windows that peered out across the street to the empty lot where Houston’s fabled “Fear Factory” once stood were just too inviting. Nostalgia won out, and I curled up at a table with a primo view. Mere moments later, I was already being served my Bun Xao Chay (stir-fried tofu with veggies and vermicelli). And I know, I know… I probably should have started my Vietnamese sandwich shop marathon with an actual sandwich, but I happen to have a severe vermicelli addiction. It’s a real condition. Don’t judge. I’m still stunned by the amount of food that Cali plopped on my plate for less than six bucks. The tofu and veggies were crispy, the sauces offered for spicing up the dish were plentiful, and the rich strawberry smoothie that the waiter whipped up for dessert was the perfect finish. The only problem was my inability to escape the feeling that I was skipping out on a check. A satisfying dine-in meal that totals less than $10 isn’t something I’ve come across very often, and I found myself leaving an excessive tip to repay what felt like a karmic debt to the food Gods.
Day Two – Thien An Sandwiches
Thien An keeps odd hours and operates on a cash-only basis, depending mostly on the downtown and midtown nine-to-fivers for a daily lunchtime rush. Mid-day packs the unadorned (almost too plain) restaurant interior with busy folks looking for Pho, looking for summer rolls, and looking for a break from the lunchtime sub sandwich rut. The Banh Xeo (Vietnamese crepe with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts) is the hot ticket at Thien An, so I made sure to bring an omnivore along with me to sample this signature dish while I stuck to my traditional veggie path. At $6.50, the mysterious looking crepe came out intimidating all who gazed upon it with its sheer size and pungent aromas. My omnivorous companion gobbled it down before I even made it through a single spring roll, reporting “it’s probably not something for everyone.” But the constant flow of Banh Xeo from the kitchen to the packed dining tables seemed to tell a different story. I felt like quite the little outsider, sitting there with my tofu sandwich ($2.50 – that’s right, I said $2.50!) and my veggie spring rolls ($2.50 – yep, I said it again!). My sandwich was done just right, with plenty of carrots for crunch and mayo for flavor. At first taste, the spring rolls seemed a bit limp and unmemorable. But a healthy drizzle of the amazing peanut sauce that Thien An sent out managed to perk them up.
Day Three – Les Givral’s
There are a few Les Givral’s around town these days, but my mission concerned the location right in the heart of little Saigon, on Milam in Midtown. With a more obvious storefront location, more traditional operating hours and a slightly more recognizable name, I expected this place to suffer from an inflated ego and the menu pricing to match. And while my check at Les Givral’s did end up being slightly more than my previous Vietnamese outings, I quickly realized that the difference was completely arbitrary. I really don’t care if I paid $6.75 instead of $6.00 for some of the best Vietnamese stir fry I’ve ever had. The point is I didn’t pay $9.00 like I have for years at Mai’s. (Oh Mai’s, I feel so used.) My omnivore was again on hand and offered excellent reports on Les Givral’s Pho Doc Biet (beef Pho with a mish-mash of specialty meats tossed in). My stir-fry dish somehow managed to be both filling and light at the same time, served with a side of pickled carrots and fresh cilantro that balanced out the oiliness of the noodles.
Day Four – PL Tea House
Walking into PL Tea House felt like walking into my favorite childhood picture book. Bright photos of the restaurant’s diverse offerings (from sandwich party trays to funnel cakes) covered every inch behind and around the counter. I was spared the usual awkwardness of trying to sputter out my Texan drawled version of Vietnamese and instead just pointed to what I wanted. “That. That. And That. To go, please.” I was in one of my more exhausted moods at the time, and requested a cup of coffee to perk me up while I waited for the kitchen staff to hustle out my take-out order. The man behind the counter launched into a flurry of suggestions, flinging his hand up at the vivid display of specialty smoothies they offered. Apparently, plain jane coffee was a sacrilege at an establishment that offered wild drink concoctions like chocolate avocado banana crème blends and lychee coconut gelatin slurpies. Before I could wade through the numerous (and occasionally terrifying) drink options, the man behind the counter insisted that I try his favorite and started blending me up a Mocha Coffee with tapioca pearls. Thank you, thank you, thank you, sir. While I’m not usually a fan of iced coffee, this creamy treat was strong and rich, served bubble tea style. The tofu sandwich I ordered ended up being a bit heavy on the cilantro and the char-grilled pork, fried egg and egg loaf received mixed reviews from my omnivorous dinner companion. But the memory of that mocha delight, the promise of free Wi-Fi, and the excellent service I had received at PL Tea House managed to tempt me back later that very day, for a quiet afternoon on the couches in the back with my laptop and an Oreo Cookie Ice Cream Blend. Or maybe two. Seriously, stop judging me.
Day Five – NGA’s Restaurant
The final day of my Little Saigon tour found me at Pho-Nga for what felt like my most official “sit-down” meal of the week. Menu prices were a bit higher for this “Vietnamese cuisine” than they had been for the “Vietnamese fast food” I had previously been dabbling in. But the menu was also more extensive, offering more options than I’d seen all week. I settled on a chow-mein style vegetable dish. Now before anyone goes and gets all up in arms about my choice, yes, I am fully aware that chow-mein isn’t remotely authentic Vietnamese. But hey, I didn’t put it on their menu. I just ordered it. And I’m glad I did. Their interpretation of chow-mein was less greasy than the traditional Chinese version with a slight crisp fried into their noodles and a light seasoning that merely enhanced the vegetables, rather than overcoming them. The omnivore’s dish of the day was a rice concoction with a bit of everything thrown in: shrimp, chicken, pork, and even a few veggies (though he managed to avoid those completely). He declared it a success, with meat more tender than some of the other places we’d tried. My only regret at Pho-Nga: while we were checking out, I spotted French press coffee being lovingly blended behind the counter. I really, really should have gotten one of those.
All the noodles and tofu strips and broccoli stalks have started to run together and I find I’m in no condition to offer some sort of dissertation on the superiority of any one of these fine restaurants. Check back with me in a few weeks, when I will hopefully have gained some perspective on my epic week of Vietnamese gluttony. In the meantime, I’ll likely be hiding in the back of PL tea, slurping down liquid Oreos and mocha crèmes, and politely declining the manager’s repeated offers for me to try their spring rolls. No. No, thank you sir. I’m all spring rolled out.