My expectations were not high. Most reviews have been lukewarm. Alison Cook liked Hue, but concluded that it does not always live up to its promise. I'm never full finds it pretty good, but over priced.
Yet I discovered that I liked Hue -- much more than I expected. Yes, its beautiful modern decor may raise suspicions for people who prefer Asian hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Yes Hue serves traditional Vietnamese dishes that you can order in Chinatown for less. And yes, the crowd reflects West U more than Chinatown.
Still, Hue may be serving the best Vietnamese food inside the Loop -- and in a very pleasing environment.
My daughter ordered two starters -- cha gio (crispy spring rolls) and chao tom (Vietnamese ground shrimp wrapped around a sugar cane and grilled). You can get both dishes at most Vietnamese restaurants in Houston.
I usually find cha gio as dull as a Chinese egg roll, but these had a strong crunch and a tasty interior. They were among the best I have tried in Houston.
Chao tom is another dish that usually disappoints me. Too often, the ground shrimp lose their shrimp flavor, and the sugar cane is dry and fibrous. But at Hue, the shrimp had the flavor of fresh shrimp hot off the grill. And the sugar cane was full of sweet juice. Certainly, this was the best version of this dish that I have found.
A rant about fish sauce: Both starters were served with a wimpy dipping sauce, which included too little watered down fish sauce overpowered by the flavor of sugar and lime. Too often, Vietnamese restaurants that cater to a non-Vietnamese crowd will water down their fish sauce. And they almost never serve white people the strong stuff -- thick fish sause with silvery bits of fish and pineaple. They assume that Westerners don't like it. They are wrong. Fish sauce has a funky, adult taste that it is one of my favorite flavors. I wish more Vietnamese restaurants would serve the good stuff to non-Vietnamese.
Much to my chagrin, my wife and daughter really liked the watery sweet dipping sauce at Hue.
Calmari Salad, Clay Pot Fish
A stronger tasting dish was the calmari salad. The dish was loaded with cucumber, limes, and cherry tomatoes. But the best component was a strongly flavored dressing that included lime and a lot of lemon grass. I have never had a Vietnamese salad this good. It reminded me of a cold and spicy Thai salad.
The only dish I tried that was not superlative was Ca Kho To (salmon simmered in a hot pot). Like most very good ca kho to, the flavors were deep, dark, and murky -- garlic, soy, fish sauce, and just enough caramelized sugar. The only problem was the salmon. It was tough and not very flaky. Either this was not the best piece of fish, or it had been overcooked.
I did like the unusual idea of making this dish with salmon, instead of the more common catfish or snapper. These flavors marry well with salmon. Perhaps next time, the fish will not be overcooked.
Desserts were unexceptional. But then again, desserts in Vietnamese restaurants usually are not special. A banana rum dessert was a bit to dry and chewy. A chocolate mousse cake had some flavor, but was not very interesting.
As an amateur food critic, I feel a little guilty for liking a restaurant for its atmosphere. My judgment should be based on food, right?
But I really dig the simple, high modernist feel of the decor in Hue. Like all the Azuma-related restaurants, it has a natural, minimalist touch that transports me to Asia, and somehow puts me at home. Hue is without a doubt the most beautiful Vietnamese restaurants in Houston.
Hue's food is about consolidation, not innovation. It takes a "greatest hits" approach to Vietnamese food. And it does a very good job with standard Houston-Vietnamese dishes.
I will be returning frequently.