Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pagoda Vietnamese Bistro - proselytizing Vietnamese food

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.

A bistro?

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.

Why go?

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.


rr said...

funny to see your thoughts. megan and i went this friday with a couple of friends and had mixed feelings. they just opened so we let a lot of things slide. lets just say they told us that they ran out of the stock for all the was 7:30pm.

i think it will do great at lunch and the brunch menu looks pretty good. the price is right but i was expecting more than what we got...

neverfull said...

thanks for the report. i actually thought about going sat night but went to el tiempo instead. i was a little cranky and needed to know i was going to be fed good food, so i didn't chance it. i'll give pagoda a try soon.

i hope you will be using those photos you took today. i'm kicking myself b/c i didn't get any photos of that beautiful shrimp.

anonymouseater said...

Yeah, it's a good addition to the neighborhood, but not a destination restaurant that Vietnamese food fans will drive across town for.

Houston Diner said...

I agree with anonymous eater that it is definitely "not a destination restaurant that Vietnamese food fans will drive across town for." As you walk in - it ranks of sewage. They should fix that problem right away. There is no sign and we drove around because their hostess is incompetent of the area. She sounds like she came from the hood. The food is overpriced. They will be screwed once Les Givral's opens on Washington. At least at Hue on Richmond and Kirby, you are paying for stellar food in a beautiful atmosphere. Pagoda will do well with non-cultured customers that have no clue what real Vietnamese food tastes like and smile as they pay $6 for banh mi they could get with better bread and ingredients for $2. What an insult to those that know. I was disappointed to say the least.

Kendall said...

Until a few days ago, I lived down the street from Pagoda - ate there several times a week. I just wrote about my experiences there:

TheMajority said...

BEWARE. This is unfair. I wrote a lengthy review for Pagoda on Houston Citysearch which is probably one of the best known web guides to Houston restaurant dining aside from Yelp. However, the Pagoda owner has unlisted herself from it! ALL 38 reviews were POOR (1 out of 5 stars for all but one review). I think it was deceptive of Pagoda to remove their name from the Citysearch because it was a pretty strong indicator that this restaurant was not well-liked by the majority of its customers. She has decided to keep Pagoda on Yelp because there have only been 2 reviews. Due to the impressive decor, I would've respected Pagoda much more if they had attempted to turn their reputation around despite the bad reviews through improved service and food rather than try to hide them from us.

We came with a big family for an early Christmas dinner. It took 4 different waiters to refill our drinks. Our steaks tasted EMBARRASSINGLY bad. They didn't even have enough people to take care of the wine bar. "Jumbo-sized scallops" are the size of the quarter even though promised otherwise by the waiter. My cousin paid $60 a head for: a TINY bowl of soup, a piece of rubbery steak with a meager portion of greens and edible mashed potatoes, and a pre-packaged piece of chocolate cake. Unbelievable.

This is NOT the place for authentic Vietnamese food. It tasted as though Sandy, the owner has no appreciation of the quality of Vietnamese food and she chooses to turn a blind eye to the complaints and hide them from the public. Anyone who is Vietnamese will tell the food is disgusting and priced at a premium. It's one thing to create an inventive Vietnamese-fusion menu but it's another to slap together low-grade ingredients in hopes of no one noticing. Please beware that the owner may have many friends who are falsely promoting her restsaurant. If anyone is searching for delicious Vietnamese food, head to Bellaire for 1/8 of the price and 5 times the value. Just try to ask for a referral from an Asian friend if they've eaten here. They certainly would NOT recommend Pagoda.

There is a reason why this restaurant is always empty!