Pagoda's proselytizing mission
Pagoda Vietnamese Bistro and Bar is a new Vietnamese restaurant in the cluster of restaurants at I-10 and Shepard.
Pagoda's mission statement needs some editing, but is still fascinating:
"We are the first authentic Vietnamese eatery west of downtown a full menu comparative in traditional quality that can be found in Southeast Houston better known as Chinatown. For urban dwellers that find that part of town too far, Pagoda Bistro is bringing the delectable banh mi, cafe sua da, and pho to the city. Up and coming restaurant surely to be a neighborhood favorite to the Heights hippies, Midtown young professionals, Montrose eclectic crowd, Musum District artisans, River Oakies, and the Downtown/Allen Parkway industry professionals."
One problem with this is geography. Chinatown is in southwest Houston, not southeast. Second, Pagoda is not the first authentic Vietnamese restaurant west of downtown; almost all Vietnamese restaurants are west of downtown. Third, its odd to suggest that Pagoda is bringing Vietnamese food to Midtown professionals when Houston's first Vietnamese restaurants began, and some still are located, in Midtown.
Still, Pagoda's goal is laudable: bring Vietnamese food to a non-Asian audience. A few other restaurants have tried to do that. The Vietnam Restaurant in the Heights cooks home-style Vietnamese food, but parts of its menu pander to American tastes. Vietopia in West U attempts to modernize of fusionify Vietnamese dishes, not always with good results.
Pagoda's approach is different. It's menu reads like a "greatest hits" of the Vietnamese dishes that appeal to Western palates. The execution of those dishes is high quality, and mostly traditional.
The word "bistro" is often misused. In France, "bistro" refers to a small restaurant serving modestly-priced food and wine. Lately, many restaurants call them selves bistro, even when they are large and expensive and serve nothing remotely like French bistro food.
Pagoda is the rare non-French restaurant that actually fits the term bistro. The small space in a renovated house has a lot of wood and some colorful, art-deco style, Asian art. The prices are moderate. The modest menu emphasizes the French side of Vietnamese cuisine. And Pagoda actually has a good list of inexpensive wines that work with its food.
Vietnamese greatest hits
The menu has all the Vietnamese dishes that non-Asian Americans tend to like: spring rolls, white asparagus crab soup, bo luc lac (Vietnamese beef), pho, and vermicelli bowls.
The best dish I tried was a soup called bun bo hue. It consisted of vermicelli and thin slices of beef and some sort of pork cake in a complex, very spicy broth. On the side is a plate of condiments including cabbage, cilantro, jalapenos, and lime. Like the best Vietnamese soups, it is hard to put a finger on the multi-faceted flavor -- a little sea, a little meat, salty, hot, slightly sweet, bulby, aromatic, and funky. I'm no expert in Vietnamese soups, but this is one of the best I have tried.
At lunch only, Pagoda serves a simple grilled chicken rice plate. The chicken has a subtle Vietnamese marinade, that probably includes lemon grass and fish sauce. Yet it will appeal to Western tastes because it tastes a lot like barbecue. Pagoda uses long grain rice for this dish, instead of crushed rice, which I prefer. But the dish bows to tradition by placing a fried egg on top.
Pagoda's carmelized catfish (ca kho to) is one of the best versions I have tried of this dish. The dish is made by carmelizing some cane sugar in a hot bowl before adding the fish. The sauce was complex and not overly sweet.
An appetizer of shrimp skewers is a traditional dish where shrimp are ground, shaped around a sugar cane, and grilled. Pagoda's version works because it actually tastes like fresh shrimp.
A few dishes could use some tweaking. At lunch, the combination banh mi had interesting meat flavors, but too much mayonnaise. At dinner, lemongrass mussels had high quality mussels, but the flavors had been diluted by using too much cream.
I am impressed that Pagoda mostly sticks to Vietnamese dishes. There is no sweet and sour pork here -- although Pagoda's menu does include beef satay and ponzu scallops. Yet most of the menu accurately Franco-Indonesian cuisine. It just emphasizes the Franco side, rather than the stranger, more exotic side of Vietnamese cuisine.
Pagoda is a welcome addition of Vietnamese food to a part of town with few Vietnamese restaurants. It is an excellent introduction to Vietnamese food for non-Asian Americans. And it may be the best Vietnamese restaurant in Houston for wine geeks who care about wine pairings.
But if you live in Southwest Houston, there is no reason to go out of your way to try Pagoda. Think of it like a Mexican cathedral. It may be impressive and worth seeing if you happen to be in Mexico. But if you live in Rome, a few blocks from St. Peter's, you wouldn't make a special trip to Mexico just to see a cathedral.
Because I work in the area, I am going to be a regular at Pagoda.