Thursday, April 24, 2008

Vietnam Restaurant: getting back to its roots


For food critics, "Americanization" is a dirty word. Americanization takes the food of another culture and fries it, sweetens it, strips away strong flavors and eccentricities. Yet once in a while, Americanization creates something good.

Good or bad, the process is fascinating. Ever since Houston's first Vietnamese Restaurant --Mai's -- opened in 1978, we have seen the Americanization of Vietnamese cuisine up close. It takes different forms. Some local Vietnamese kitchens try to shape their cuisine to appeal to American tastes. Others interact with American ideas and ingredients to create something new. Still others return to the traditional roots.

The next few posts will consider some Vietnamese restaurants geared to an American audience. It is too easy to dismiss these restaurants as overpriced and inauthentic. It is too easy to say you can get better Vietnamese food on Bellaire. You probably can. But sometimes Bellaire is too far away. And there are some interesting, quality Vietnamese dishes in other parts of town.

History of Vietnam Restaurant

Vietnam Restaurant is the best Vietnamese food outpost in the Heights. It sits among a strip of antique shops and other restaurants on 19th Street, east of Shepherd.

Vietnam Restaurant was not originally in the Heights. It opened, with the first wave of Vietnamese restaurants in 1980, on Main Street near Elgin.

I first tried it around 1988. It had a $2.95 all-you-can-eat buffet, with mostly fried Chinese food and sweet sauces. Most of the customers seemed to work in construction. The interior was one of the grubbiest in town. Even as a poor college student, I thought the place was awful -- a Marvin Zindler report waiting to happen.

Then around 1992, a group of friends told me the secret to enjoying Vietnam -- pay twice as much, skip the buffet, and order Vietnamese food from the menu. I discovered a set of Vietnamese dishes that were spicy, exotic, and very good.
I could tell from talking with the owner that the Vietnam was struggling with two possible paths. First, it could go the route of Chinese buffets sprouting all over the city and use high volume/low cost economics and cater to a working class crowd. Or, second, it could capitalize on the more adventurous clients who were willing to pay more and order real Vietnamese dishes.

In 2003, the Vietnam made its choice. It reinvented itself in the Heights. It killed the buffet. It picked a bright, cheery location. It placed modern art (for sale by artists) all over its walls. Its website even re-wrote the history of its Main location:

"'Vietnam Restaurant, The Untold Story' is a famous downtown Houston restaurant which became a gathering place for artists, writers, designers, historians, curators, collectors, educators, doctors and other professionals."

Famous? Designers? Historians? Doctors? So did they come disguised as construction workers? Perhaps you can forgive Vietnam Restaurant for trying to glorify its dingy past location. After all, this is America.

In the last 5 years, the Vietnam's personal mythology has become a reality. The restaurant is popular with a mostly non-Asian, Heights crowd. I don't know about historians, but these days it is visited by a lot of artists and professionals -- and very few construction workers.

Vietnam Restaurant's food now

On the menu, dishes are listed in English and Vietnamese, but they are carefully described for the English-speaking crowd.

One of Vietnam Restaurant's the best dishes is Bo Luc Lac, or Vietnamese Beef. These beef tips are marinated in wine and butter, caramelized, and served in a slightly sweet fish sauce with garlic, onions, and jalapenos. The beef tips are seared on the outside, tender, and medium rare inside.

I have tried this dish all over town, but not found a better version than at Vietnam. The proprietor once told me that they have an old Vietnamese woman in back who makes it. I believe that one.

Another great dish is Ca Kho To, or Peppery Fish. It includes bits of catfish simmered in a hot pot. The sauce -- a mix of caramelized onions, fish sauce, and pepper -- is an exotic blend unlike any other fish sauce-based sauce that I have tried. The flavor notes remind me of Vietnamese marinated and barbecued pork.

I suspect that both of these dishes have changed little since the founders immigrated from Vietnam. But elsewhere on the menu, there are signs of Americanization. For instance, the Vietnam Restaurant's menu includes sweet & sour pork and sesame chicken. Quite a few dishes are battered and deep fried.

Even some of the Vietnamese dishes are dumbed down for Western tastes. The Vietnamese dish Muc Xao Thom, or Squid with Pineapple, traditionally is served with a thick, concentrated fish sauce mixed with fresh pineapple. But the Vietnam Restaurant's sauce has only a hint of fish sauce and appears to consist mostly of corn starch and water. Although the squid are cut beautifully, and the pineapple is tasty, the sauce is almost tastesless. The key traditional ingredient, which happens to be my favorite ingredient, is the concentrated fish sauce. It is all but missing from this dish.

The Vietnam is one restaurant where fusion has worked better with the decor than the food. I don't mind the artsy interior, the mostly-white crowd, or dishes priced over $10. But the Vietnam's kitchen does spectacularly well when it sticks to its traditional roots. It took the right step when it eliminated the Chinese buffet. Now the Vietnam Restaurant just needs to learn that some Westerners really are willing to eat a strongly-concentrated fish sauce.


artyeater said...

I live in the Hts and have never connected with Vietnam's food. I know they have a loyal following but their Vietnamese standards always seem quite ordinary to me. Maybe I'll try the beef dish you describe.

Anonymous said...

I was looking forward to trying this out yesterday, but then realized with chagrin that they're closed on Sunday, like so many of my other favorite Vietnamese places. Dammit! Maybe next weekend...

Anonymous said...

Hey, exciting news for ya:

We need to have lunch there once they've finished the expansion and remodel!

Annie said...

Just found your blog via Swamplot. Vietnam Restaurant did not rewrite their history as stated in your posting. A group of doctors, scientists, art collectors, designers, gallery owners and other professionals met at their old location for dinner every Thursday night and we called ourselves the "Stitch and Bitch" group (the name is another story.) But perhaps we all do look like construction workers. Tall Husband and I eat at the new location in the Heights every Saturday.

anonymouseater said...

Annie --

Since I wrote this blog, I have become familiar with Stich and Bich. I suppose the website's history is partly correct. The Vietnam was a gathering place for artists and professionals in the late 80s. But it also was a gathering place for blue collar workers, who were the majority of the crowd. The website's history leaves out the construction workers.