Vietnam Restaurant was part of the first wave of Vietnamese food in Houston. The second wave is represented by Vietopia.
The Promise of Vietopia
Vietopia opened with great promise in 2000. A lot of Houston foodies thought it might be the first in a wave of quality Vietnamese fusion restaurants -- much like the current wave of high end sushi restaurants. Sadly, I tried Vietopia then and was unimpressed.
I remembered Vietopia recently when a French-trained chef, who works for a local publication, told me that Vietopia is one of her favorite restaurants. So I asked a Vietnamese-born friend about Vietopia. She won't go because it has so many white customers. My friend isn't racist. She just knows that all the white customers means Vietopia is not very authentic.
Still, I thought Vietopia might be worth another try.
Vietopia is a swank restaurant near US59 and Buffalo Speedway. The decor is lovely. Most of the customers seem to be from West U. It is one of Houston's priciest Vietnamese restaurants.
Vietopia's menu reads like the creation of an American-trained chef with pan-Asian influences. It includes dishes that appear to be Thai (sate chicken, basil duck) and Chinese (Peking duck, sweet & sour chicken), but most appear to be at least vaguely Vietnamese.
Last week, I tried three dishes. One was very good. One was mediocre. One was awful.
The good -- Vietopia's "roasted duck" appetizer was a surprise. The duck was nicely roasted with a crispy skin. It was served with rice patties, with a sticky, chewy texture. The star of the dish was a sweet, viscous garlic/honey sauce. The sauce did not seem very Vietnamese, but more like the kind of honey dipping sauce that some American restaurants serve with chicken fingers. That may not sound very authentic, but the dish is a delicious mix of textures and flavors.
The mediocre -- Vietopia's Ground Shrimp is a common Vietnamese dish. The cauliflower-looking balls consist of ground shrimp rolled into a tree shape with sugar cane as the trunk. At Vietopia, the dish looks better than it tastes. The shrimp have a rubbery consistency and not much flavor. Fortunately, it is served with pressed steamed rice vermicelli, onion rings, lettuce, Vietnamese basil, and an overly sweet fish-sauce-based dipping cause. When you wrap the noodles, shrimp, and basil in some lettuce and dip it in the sauce, it tastes pretty good. But you can get better, cheaper versions of this dish elsewhere.
The bad -- Vietopia's "grilled" shrimp and chicken with vermicelli is neither traditional nor good. The shrimp served with this dish were edible, but rubbery and lacking in flavor. Most shrimp in cheap restaurants is not very fresh, and does not taste much like shrimp. But for the price of this dish -- around $16 -- I expected better.
But the really bad part of this dish was the chicken. Some Houston Vietnamese restaurants serve a fantastic Vietnamese marinated and grilled chicken. This is not that dish. Vietopia seems to bread its chicken instead of marinating it. My wife immediately identified the flavor --Kentucky Fried Chicken without the spices. The chicken was dry and overcooked. It appears to have been cut before cooking, which ensured that little moisture remained. Although the sides are the same as for the ground shrimp, they could not rescue this dish.
Vietopia has a good idea -- a fusion of Vietnamese dishes with pan-Asian and American influences. I wished I liked it more. The big problem seems to be consistency and execution. One good dish out of three is not a good ratio.
Pagoda - Hope for Vietnamese Fusion?
Another Vietnamese fusion restaurant will open soon in the Heights, called Pagoda. Note the marketing theme from its website:
"We are the first Vietnamese eatery west of downtown with a full menu comparative in traditional quality that can be found in Southeast Houston . . . . surely to be a neighborhood favorite to the Heights hippies, Midtown young professionals, Montrose eclectic crowd, Museum District artisans, River Oakies, and the Downtown/Allen industry professionals."
Translation: bringing Vietnamese food from Bellaire to a non-Asian audience with nice decor and high prices. Sounds like Vietopia? Those goals are not necessarily bad. But the food has to be compelling for it to work.