Have You Been to Pho Binh?

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Pho with brisket and crispy fat at Pho Binh

If you’re a Houston Chowhound or a resident of South Houston, the answer might be a resounding “YES!” But if you aren’t in one of these groups, you’re probably missing out on the best pho in Houston.

The best pho in Houston. That’s a minefield of a statement. After all, Houston’s thriving Vietnamese community means that there are at least 70 pho restaurants in town — and probably far more than the ones I could count in the phone book — which would seem to make choosing a favorite a difficult task. But it’s only difficult if you’ve never eaten at Pho Binh. In the face of its highly fragrant broth with a silky sheen of beef fat floating on top, all other pho becomes a distant and slightly disappointing memory. This is truly how pho should taste.

Jalapenos, limes and bean sprouts for the pho
Jalapenos, limes and bean sprouts for the pho

I’m not the first to write a love letter (or love video, even) to Pho Binh and I certainly won’t be the last. And I certainly can’t claim to have discovered the place. Pho Binh has been a staple of the South Houston dining scene for at least 20 years, according to my friend and area resident David Tong. He seemed shocked to hear that Houston foodies have discovered the little place — a ramshackle pairing of a single-wide trailer and a tumbledown house — and are currently singing its praises far and wide. He half-jokingly told me that people who find the place have a duty as secret-keepers to make sure it doesn’t become too popular. After all, they run out of pho every day as it is.

I had the pleasure of eating breakfast there last weekend with a collection of some of my favorite food lovers: Misha, Dorothy and David. David, who owns Tuscany Coffee, bragged of eating at Pho Binh at least five times a week when he was working in South Houston and therefore was our guide for the meal. He advised us to get the bo vien (meatballs) and extra fat with our pho. I went with both of those options as well as brisket and crispy fat for my soup. I thought of my former boss, Trang, and how she and her family would eat pho every morning for breakfast (pho is a traditional Vietnamese breakfast, lunch or dinner item — versatile!). If every morning started over a rich, invigorating, slightly spicy bowl of noodle soup with thick cuts of brisket and fat, I feel I’d be at least half as productive as she was. Or not. She had that whole half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese, crazy hardcore Asian work ethic going for her. And…I don’t.

A pho-ntastic meal
A pho-ntastic meal

The folks who run Pho Binh had just returned from their annual two month trip back to Vietnam. During that time each year, the restaurant is closed. As in, tough luck, go eat somewhere else, we have lives to live closed. I love that attitude, and wish it extended to American culture as well. As a result, the place was utterly packed with happy customers, joyful for the return of their beloved pho. We scored a rickety couple of tables in the single-wide portion of the restaurant, which is technically the storeroom/back half of the kitchen.

As I slurped my noodles and savored each drop of broth, surrounded by boxes of paper napkins and flats of aluminum cans, I thought how odd it was that one of the best meals of my life was being enjoyed in a poorly-lit trailer off Fuqua and I-45. But isn’t that all that we hope for in Houston? And isn’t that what we love about this city?

Chinatown, Summer in the City

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Chinatown, USA

Inspired, of course, by the classic Lovin’ Spoonful song.

Despite the fact that we’re experiencing the longest, strongest heat wave since 1980, I decided that today would be a good day to roam around Chinatown and finish collecting information for a Press article I’m working on. So I grabbed one of my trusty partners in crime, Groovehouse, and we hit the streets.

Our first stop was Banana Leaf, one of the few Malaysian restaurants in Houston. I am constantly amazed that we don’t have more Malaysian places in a city like ours (and I’m not the only one). Malaysian cuisine combines the best of Thai, Indian and Chinese cooking into a delicious amalgamation of flavors and spices. You’ll find sweet peanut sauces and tropical dishes alongside spicy curries and mild fish head casseroles — Banana Leaf has something for everybody. On this visit, I had the roti canai (flat, doughy pancakes served with curry sauce), crispy fried tofu with cucumber and bean sprouts in satay sauce, a gingery masak lemak with shrimp, sambal shrimp with mango and — for dessert — more hot roti filled with butter and bananas. I won’t say too much more for now, lest I have nothing to write about later on, but it was one of the better meals I’ve had in recent memory — and that’s after eating at a $600 a night farm-to-table, five-starred restaurant on Wednesday that I thought might be the pinnacle of Texas restaurants. Groovehouse loved it, too.

Afterwards, I took him on a tour of the “new” Chinatown along Beltway 8. Since the “old” Chinatown just outside of downtown off Chenevert has all but dried up and blown away, too many die-hard ITLers are now missing out on one of Houston’s greatest and most fascinating landscapes. I first took him past the little-known Vietnam memorial located on Bellaire Boulevard, notable for the fact that it was financed by local southern Vietnamese business owners to thank American soldiers who tried to help them during the quagmire that was the Vietnam “War.” The memorial depicts an American soldier and a southern Vietnamese soldier fighting side by side and is remarkably moving for a statue located in a strip center parking lot. Continue reading Chinatown, Summer in the City

I’m a Pho-natic

…in case you didn’t know.

And speaking of that hot, yummy deliciousness, check out my post on Houstonist today about two of the newest pho restaurants in town:

One Pho the Money, Two Pho the Show

Quick recap:  Pho 24 in Chinatown is awesome.  Pho Huy in Spring Branch is — surprisingly — awesomer.

P.S.  If anyone is looking to get me a Christmas present (besides this oven…gah), I’ll take one of these:

That is all.

A Link a Day…

…keeps the vultures at bay.  What?  It’s practically the same sentiment.

Busy day around the office means a short post for y’all.  But here’s my most recent review on Houstonist of the newly-reopened Nori Sushi Bistro, which I’m…not a fan of.  Yeah.

Houstonist Bites: Nori Sushi Bistro

Oh, well.

In other news, we have few new Houston food bloggers on the scene!  They’re on the blogroll over there to your right of course, but just so’s you’ll know who’s new and who’s decrepit (like me), here’s a few links for you:

Houston Foodie

Shabak’s Kitchen

M’s Culinary Experiments

Go show them some love, y’all.  Peace!

Fung’s Kitchen

As promised, a (kinda-sorta) review of our dim sum brunch at Fung’s Kitchen last Sunday:

Houstonist Bites: Fung’s Kitchen

Pictures abound, thanks to Olivia, one of the newest Chowhound recruits.

I’m telling you, if you haven’t joined Houston Chowhounds (and you live in Houston…), you really should check it out.  We have all kinds of fun, random adventures and we make excellent dining companions.  It’s particularly good if you’re a food person and your friends and/or significant other aren’t.  There’s always at least one or two Chowhounds who are up for brunch, lunch, dinner, a crosstown trip to a taqueria or an afternoon picking out fish in Kemah.

Meanwhile, Jenny at I’m Never Full posted a great photo essay of our brunch, complete with the correct Cantonese names for the dishes (I’m so hopelessly white sometimes…).  Go check it out!

Sushi: Not For You

You’ll notice that I’ve removed the Houstonist link below to the “almost all-night sushi” place.  I’ve also removed mention of its name.  If you go to Houstonist, the article is still there because I will not (and also cannot) take it down.  But, seriously, don’t even bother reading it.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about this.