Pho From Home: Houston

My affair with our I-45 rival can be best described as a love/hate relationship, heavy on the hate. Past trips I've made to Houston consistently involved cursed adventures and unlucky mishaps with scars--yes actual scars--to prove it.

From the time a two inch nail left a lifelong mark in my adolescent flesh, to the time a drunken bar patron dropped a tumbler of vodka on my sandal wearing foot...guess it would only be fair for this Dallasite to perpetuate the popular and eternal "Dallas vs. Houston" feud. Fortunately, in the name of world peace, age, a growing sense of tolerance and forgiveness, curiosity and recent experiences have softened my distaste for the city.

Still, a pros and cons list of Space City shows schizophrenic results. For example, I envy our southern rival for being more culturally rich and ethnically diverse than Dallas, but I find it creepy that some popular Vietnamese restaurants in Houston have bullet proof windows because of Asian gang violence. And though I adore that Houston provides me the opportunity of being able to find anything I could possibly ever crave to eat, I abhor having to endure the comically frustrating traffic and distance of actually getting there.

Christmas this year: feeling sympathy for my newly-single cousin, I decided to fly down and celebrate the holidays with her. Luckily, my cousin, Tram, is an equally enthusiastic eater and understands that my visits to Houston customarily revolve around food. As we start planning our eating tour, I throw a wrench into the plans which yields a surprising reaction from my baby cousin.

"I have to go to a pho place at least once so I can write about it. What is a good place here?" I ask.

She swiftly replies, "There's not one."

It may be a surprise to non-Vietnamese people that the last thing Vietnamese people crave is pho, especially restaurant pho. I love it, but it's not something I seek out when I am in a city like Houston, which boasts the highest population of Vietnamese people in Texas. As a result, there are a lot of meals I can enjoy in Houston that I wouldn't be able to enjoy in Dallas.

This being said, I'm nonetheless surprised at the alacrity and certainty of my cousin's response. Pho Saigon is a popular chain with nine locations in the city. We drive to the Midtown location to meet Tram's friend, Nu, for lunch.

Midtown Houston is a picture of desertion. Once heavily populated with a Vietnamese community, now there are only a few remnants of its past remaining, many of its former inhabitants fleeing to build a larger more cohesive community in Bellaire. Weathered Vietnamese street signs named after famous streets in the Motherland have been left behind. The only signs of Vietnamese life are a Kim Son restaurant and banquet hall and small properties like Thiem Hung sandwich shop, which have remained in their locations, serving employees of nearby businesses and Asian customers who still live nearby.

While Kim Son is a popular fixture in Houston with many locations, Thiem Hung is a small quaint insider secret. The sandwich shop, which also serves other Vietnamese dishes, such as pho and rice platters, has a hip young owner who has worked at the restaurant for the past few years. After buying the business from its previous owners, he made a few changes to gear his restaurant towards the new generation--such as a new website and eternally cool Sinatra tunes playing out of the speakers. However, the important stuff, like the location and the amazing French baguette he serves his sandwiches on, remain the same. When I asked him where he gets his bread, he would only say, "It's from a nearby bakery that we've always gotten it from, and it is a secret."

Seated inside Pho Saigon, I begin grilling my two companions for their thoughts on the demise of pho. Tram begins, "This place used to be pretty good, but it's gone downhill." Nu adds, "The only really good pho nowadays is from home."

Over lunch, I get a better understanding of how this could have happened. The consensus at our table is that pho suffered its fate at the hands of the very people who created it, the Vietnamese. When our immigrant relatives first came to the States, they worked for something better, the American dream. This involved pushing their offspring towards bigger things: the pursuit of a better education, high earning occupations, and assimilation. Pursuing an American dream with the six figure income doesn't allow younger generations much time to learn the craft of cooking their ancestors mastered. Even more sadly, it doesn't even allow the younger generation to truly learn how to appreciate it.

How are we to expect an American to know any better? As I look around Pho Saigon, I see all races: white, black, Asian, Hispanic. Waiters are frantically taking orders and rushing out hot bowls of soup from the kitchen, and something clicks in my head. In a metropolitan and ethnically diverse city such as Houston, pho shops have become the new McDonalds, a fast food franchise for those too busy to cook.

Where else can younger generation Vietnamese and their American cohorts get their pho? How are they not supposed to confuse a good bowl of soup for a fast food bowl of soup? Pho is going the path of Chinese take out, and dying an all too rapid cultural death.

Sure, the table settings, the platter of herbs (Pho Saigon is surprisingly generous) and the bowl of noodle soup all look the same, but what about flavor? The components are all there, but the broth tastes like a mix, with nary a flavor of beef. The beef is plain and dull, not marinated. The result is a bowl of completely separate flavors, and not a cohesive dish. But with hoards of people coming in to eat every passing minute, how can one blame a restaurant like Pho Saigon in their efforts of just trying to keep up with the masses? We eat what is offered and we forget what we are supposed to be eating in the first place.

What exactly is a Filet-O-Fish, anyway, and is a Chicken McNugget even made from chicken? Eventually, many people ceased to care--as long as they have a cheap and quick option for food.

Luckily, there are still many hidden Asian gems in Houston, especially on the main Chinatown/Vietnamtown road of Bellaire. A good friend of mine who lives in Houston once said to me, "There's so much to eat in Houston, especially in Chinatown. But because there's so many restaurants, it's hard to know where is good. I drive along Bellaire all the time, but I can't begin to know where to start."

This isn't just true of him. I've been led astray by locals several times. My parents, who love to visit Houston and eat everything they can't find in Dallas, have perfected their system in seeking out the best: Arm yourself with older aged more experienced friends who know where the best places are and follow the native speakers to Asian diners.

Thanks to my parents, I discovered very special restaurants like San Dong (authentic northern Chinese fare such as dumplings with homemade dumpling skin, not store bought), Jasmine (family style Chinese/Vietnamese feasts such as whole fried fish), and Fu Fu Café (my favorite dish are the Shanghai soup dumplings).

Another sure fire tip off of a great restaurant is how long the establishment has been in business, especially if it has kept true to itself and refrained from opening second or third locations. Expansion of a restaurant is often the kiss of death, in terms of quality.

Decades have passed since I first visited Houston with my parents, and we still return to May's Ice Cream shop for our favorite Taiwanese shaved ice desserts, forgoing the new hipper alternatives. And although every youngster has an opinion on who makes the best Vietnamese baguette sandwich, only an old schooler will tell you the best place is still Givral Hoang, the Bellaire location. When my best friend, Cathy, a huge fan of Banh Mi Thit Nuong, a Vietnamese Sandwich Grilled Pork, heard I was going to Houston, she excitedly told me to visit Givral, not knowing I'm already a regular. She had discovered it a couple of months earlier, thanks to my mom.

When it comes to Houston, I never know if I will ever fully embrace the city, as great as it can be from time to time. A beautiful tree lined neighborhood can take my breath away, but the mosquitoes buzzing by my ear and the humidity that bathes every inch of my skin can make me forget any beauty I saw in the first place.

Still, I find myself being won over, one unforgettable meal at a time.

Givral Hoang Sandwich Shop- 9308A Bellaire Blvd., Houston
Pho Saigon- 9 locations
Thiem Hung Sandwich Shop- 2108 Pease St., Houston
May's Ice Cream Shop- 9260 Bellaire Blvd., Houston
Fu Fu Café- 9889 Bellaire Blvd., Houston
Jasmine Café- 9938 Bellaire Blvd., Houston
San Dong Noodle House- 9938 Bellaire Blvd., Houston (next door to Jasmine)