Category Archives: Vietnamese

Cafe Helene

Even though Houston’s Main Street has some location advantages – direct access from the subway line and in the most dense areas of downtown, midtown and Medical Center – it still suffers from spotty building abandonment. It doesn’t surprise, really, since Houston’s developers have predictably overbuilt commercial space. This new Vietnamese restaurant is taking up a sliver of what used to be a vacant building along Main Street and its a welcomed addition.

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Cafe Helene is spotless, very casual and seems to cater mostly to the nearby community college and midtown lunch-hour crowd. Quite a few people were queued up for takeaway. The inside is a comfortable collection of high-waisted stools and  padded booths; red, black and tan Asian inspiration meets IKEA.  A good place to view the Main Street chaos through their floor-to-ceiling glass front without the noise or being constantly interrupted by street people with today’s poorly constructed ‘extract-cash’ story. There are a few outdoor tables should you want a more visceral experience. Me, I just want to enjoy an obstacle-free lunch and get on with my day.

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I don’t really have a litmus test for Vietnamese food like I do with others. For my virgin tour I ordered the 3-meat vermicelli bowl – pork, chicken and beef.  I tried each of the meats in isolation before mixing up the bowl. Pork and beef were fall apart tender and heavily marinated in a salty-sweet mixture leaning heavily to the fish sauce side. The chicken was also good but lacked the same flavour and had dried out a bit. After combining the chili-fish sauce-vinegar concoction with the meat, vermicelli, peanuts, onions, carrots, cucumbers and some scant herbs, I was  happy with the result. I was even happier after I located the bottle of sriracha on the table.

The accompanying egg roll was blah but once it soaked up the sauce it was a moot point.

Order at the counter, take a seat, wait about 5-10 minutes for delivery. Very efficient.

3-meat vermicelli bowl, egg roll and bottled water – $11; totally reasonable.

In a city full of cookie-cutter Vietnamese venues, its difficult to compare one with another simply because the comparison isn’t usually interesting. They are all good, which doesn’t surprise given the large Vietnamese expat community, however only a few stand out. Cafe Helene is a standout because the quality is on par with its higher-priced counterparts but its service/price  model is  geared towards those looking for a good, affordable meal, not another sparkle and fade event.

Lunch: October 2014

Cafe Helene | 3101 Main | HTX 77002


Vietnamese Drumsticks | Blair Witch Vegetables

I ran out of sriracha! Its a showstopper at my house so out I went to the local pan-Asian market for more. When I got home I realized I had defrosted some drumsticks and while I had completely forgotten why, since I was in a post-Asian market Asian mood I put a Vietnamese spin on them.


  • 2 lb Drumsticks


  • 1/4 C Ginger, chopped
  • 1/4 C Scallions, chopped
  • 1/4 C Shallots, chopped
  • 1/4 C Fish Sauce
  • 3 T Olive or Peanut Oil
  • 3 T Lime Juice
  • 3 T Coconut Sugar
  • 2 T Garlic, chopped
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Put marinade ingredients into a blender and pulse a few times. Put drumsticks and marinade into a Ziploc, seal and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, flipping over once.

Preheat oven to 375. Remove chicken from marinade, shaking off excess, then place in a roasting pan. Roast for 45 minutes then switch to broil for another 5.


Infinite possibilities but here they are served with some sauteed red bells, zucchini, and yellow squash, a bit of Jasmine topped with sriracha and chopped peanuts.

Tasting Postmortem

Seriously delicious! Fish sauce is dominant, of course, but the blend of coconut and lime is a serious second and good sweet-acidic balance to the otherwise salty flavours. A little crunch on the skin after a light broil, giving way to a burst of flavour that is not entirely expected from a drumstick. This could become a staple.

Blair Witch

One of my research assistants is new. When the plate arrived in front of her she screamed ‘Awesome, those vegetables are SOOOO cute’. The exaggerated so was overlooked but not the ‘cute’. We had a chat about how men do not make cute food. Symmetrically presented, innovative, colourful, sexy – sure. To which she replied –  ‘Fine, whatever, wrapped up like twig piles I deem them Blair Witch Vegetables – happy now?’

Yes, I am 🙂

Mot Hai Ba

I don’t care much for Dallas as a city but having lived there I accumulated a few very good friends and I do like them despite their location. A support and distraction trip to Dallas for one friend dealing with some unsavory aspects of life produced an appealing culinary side effect – good Vietnamese food.

Mot Hai Ba is the reincarnation of York St Restaurant, still the same NYC shotgun space although now the feeling is more pan-Asian with long narrow tables, button stools and a propensity for black and red. Despite its small size and odd location at the end of a residential street in East Dallas, it is fantastically busy; low-key and quiet conversation but the waiting list for lunch on Saturday queued up after 1p.

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I’ve frequented many Vietnamese venues in Houston, which oddly has one of the largest Vietnamese ex-pat communities in the US, however I had never tried Green Papaya Salad. This time I did. I couldn’t differentiate the flavour of the green papaya however the overall experience was good; the fish sauce, lime and garlic dressing overwhelmed all other flavors – good thing I like those flavours. The crisp texture of the papaya played nicely with the toothy morsels of beef.

I only have two litmus tests for Vietnamese – Pho and Banh Mi. Mot Hai Ba had both so I went with  Banh Mi, the BBQ chicken rendition. The bun was crispy and light. The chicken had been sriracha and honey basted. Requisite cucumber and carrot slices were thin, fresh and sparsely applied which allowed the cilantro and purple basil flavours to shine. I located the most important condiment on the table – chili paste – applied liberally and enjoyed. As Banh Mi goes, these were above average.

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I read the wine and beer menu until I noticed Hitachino Nest, which is the very interesting brewery from Japan I noticed when in Ireland. So far I’ve enjoyed several of their beers, post-Ireland, which I can only categorize as quirky. This variety, Dai Dai, is distinct in its dominant flavour of orange zest. A very appealing pairing with basil or cilantro spiked food.

No complaints; the servers were knowledgeable, friendly and efficient. Our meals came out at different times, which is always problematic in a large group but this is likely a consequence of a small kitchen.

Reasonable. Small Papaya Salad $6, Banh Mi $7, however I can get comparable Banh Mi in Houston for $2. This could be artifact of Houston having a larger and more demanding Vietnamese community.

A few Dallasites recommended trying Mot Hai Ba for dinner rather than lunch since some items, like the Banana Flower Salad with Chicken and Crispy Whole Fish with Celery and Peppers are not available at lunch. I’ll likely try those options on my next Dallas visit since I haven’t seen those items on Houston menus.


Lunch: June 2014

Mot Hai Ba | 6047 Lewis | DTX 75206


IMG_1440Mai’s Vietnamese restaurant has been a well-known staple in midtown Houston for over 30 years. For a stretch it was one of the few restaurants open until 4a; I am one of many people who have made a 2:15a run to Mai’s for Bo Luc Lac or Lemongrass Chicken after “socializing” with friends in  Midtown. A fire destroyed Mai’s a few years back but they rebuilt and a swankier incarnation appeared.  Same menu, same prices, same quality only without the 80’s kitsch. Shame, I rather liked the 80’s kitsch.

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Its a contemporary, high-ceiling feel now. Warm tones and exaggerated  chatter fill the space  almost any hour of the day, night or red-eye morning. Lunch is usually busy with a short wait, dinner can be very crowded with a long wait, particularly on weekends. After 2am its a hilarious mixture of misplaced testosterone, drag queens and ink aficionados.


I’ve sampled every part of their menu and it ranges from very good to excellent. This round I tried one of their specialty dishes, Bo Luc Lac (Garlic Beef) with a snow peas add-on;  slices of filet mignon marinaded in a fish sauce base, stir fried and served with grilled onion, red bell strips, jalapenos and tomatoes over lettuce.

Despite persistent crowds, which are often unruly in the wee hours, the service here is efficient, courteous and accurate.

On the high side but reasonable just be careful of the add-ons. If you start adding snow peas, mushrooms and egg rolls to your Bo Luc Lac (normally $13) it will quickly go over $20.

I’m glad to see Mai’s up and running again and I’m most happy to know that their reputation for high quality, great tasting dishes remains intact.

Lunch: 20 September 2013

Mai’s | 3403 Milam | HTX 77002

Buddha Meets Bubba

I wont go so far to say that I use a bottle of sriracha a week but it is my version of ketchup and I use it on everything. Eggs – sure! Veggies, of course! Turkey Sand – yep, otherwise its boring. Peanut butter – ok, that was a kitchen mishap, unintentional but actually, quite good.

Last night I used some sriracha on some leftover BBQ brought home from a Labour Day celebration. The combination was  good and got me thinking – how else can I combine the eastern flavors of sriracha with typically southern food found here in Houston.

I now drag thee into my experiment.

Sriracha Pulled Chicken with Cilantro-Agave Cornbread


Sriracha Pulled Chicken

  • 6-8 Chicken Thighs
  • 1/2 C Agave
  • 1/2 C Ketchup
  •  5 T Sriracha
  • 2 T Mirin
  • 2 T Soy Sauce
  • 1 t Sesame Oil
  • 1 t Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 Onion, chopped
  • 4 Cloves Garlic, chopped

Everyone except the chicken will meet in a blender and be processed until smooth. Place the chicken into a slow cooker, top with sauce. Cook on high for 1 1/2 hours, then low for 1 1/2 hours.  Remove chicken to a plate. Remove sauce to a large pot. Reduce the sauce over medium high until its the desired thickness (about 7 minutes for me), stirring often. While sauce is reducing, shred the chicken into strands using two forks. When the sauce is done, put the chicken in the sauce and stir to coat.

Cilantro Agave Cornbread

  • 1 Box Jiffy cornbread mix
  • 1 T Agave
  • 1/4-1/2 C Cilantro, chopped.

I don’t make cornbread often enough to investigate a from scratch variety and I find Jiffy to be quite reasonable. In the mix up just add the agave and cilantro to other ingredients and proceed with the instructions.

This dish is happening again next week, I liked it so much that I don’t foretell leftovers from this batch. I had some leftover black beans, made with smoked Jalapeno, they were a brilliant side.