Houston’s “Asiatown” is expansive, to say the least. Comprising both Chinatown and Little Saigon, it covers six square miles and is packed with businesses of many stripes of Asian nationalities—Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, among others. Longtime Houston resident and ardent H-town fan chef Nikki Tran knows the neighborhood front to back.
Tran is the head chef and owner of Kâu Ba, a Vietnamese-Cajun-Texan restaurant located in the city’s posh Montrose neighborhood. Her restaurant’s success has garnered international attention, and she’s appeared on three Netflix shows so far: Street Food, Somebody Feed Phil, and David Chang’s Ugly Delicious. Tran was born in Vietnam, moved to a small town in upstate New York in the 1990s and relocated to Houston in her 20s, being drawn to the city’s warm, humid climate and large Vietnamese community.
“Before I moved to Houston, my family would say, ‘Why would you want to work there?’” Tran says. “They thought Houston was all cowboy country people. So then I was like ‘I’m gonna move to Houston and see what it’s like.’ But a few years later, I found myself driving a pickup and wearing cowboy boots. I love it.”
At Kâu Ba, diners will find creative dishes like mini lobster banh mi, periwinkle snails served in a garlic butter, lemongrass sauce, and a Vietnamese rolled rice paper dish called bánh cuốn that’s been gussied up with wagyu beef and nước mắm (a sweet fish sauce) flavored with truffles. And thanks to pandemic-related complications, she got stuck in Vietnam for three years. While there, Tran sharpened her knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine and dreamed up a special menu in celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Month; it features things like “Vietjun”-style crawfish and seared scallops.
But, of course, there’s no place that Tran is inspired by and loves more than Houston. Here are the five best places to eat in Houston’s Asiatown according to her.
Location: 10623 Bellaire Blvd., C198
Must try: Bún bò huế
Sited in the Saigon-Houston Plaza along Bellaire in between a bubble tea store and a foot massage parlor, Pho 54 may have an unassuming store front, but big flavors are found inside. Though “pho” is in the name, Pho 54 is actually best known for its bún bò huế, a popular, thick rice noodle soup served with a savory lemongrass-flavored bone broth—it’s a must-try dish at the restaurant according to Tran. “To me, bún bò huế is more complicated to make than pho,” she says. “It’s actually a much more popular dish in Vietnam than pho. Pho just happened to be something that was brought here and caught on.”
Location: 2808 Milam St., Suite F
Must try: Roast duck and roast pork
SiuLap City was once located within Long Sing Supermarket, which closed in 2017. Thankfully, the local favorite reopened nearby shortly afterward as a stand-alone brick-and-mortar in 2018. Here, diners can feast upon Cantonese-style barbecue plates that come with meats like ribs, pork belly, Peking or roast duck, and tripe, as well as a side of veggies (there’s baby bok choy, stir-fried broccoli, or green beans) and steamed or fried rice. Tran recommends opting for either the roast duck or the roast pork, both of which feature crispy, crackling skin and tender meat underneath. “It’s kinda like a fast food place. You go there and you see the ducks and a half a roasted pig hanging. I don’t know why, but there’s something comforting to me about that,” she says with a laugh.
Cơm Gà Houston
Location: 11403 Bellaire Blvd.
Must try: Chicken rice
Chicken rice is one of the signature dishes of central Vietnam. It’s similar in concept to Hainanese chicken rice; the Hainanese version is more delicate in flavor, while Vietnamese chicken rice is tossed with coriander, lime juice, and onions. Tran especially likes this Vietnamese chicken rice at Cơm Gà Houston because of its free-range chicken. Thanks to the chickens’ free-range life (the chickens served are also allowed to live longer than chicken available at grocery stores), the meat is sweeter and is not as soft as commercially raised chicken, making it more texturally interesting. Cơm Gà Houston is also known for its bánh xèo, or Vietnamese crepes—order the kind with both shrimp and pork.
Bun Cha Ca Da Nang
Location: 12168 Bellaire Blvd., #333
Must try: Fish cake noodle soup
Bun Cha Ca Da Nang specializes in all things fish and fish cake. The restaurant gets its name from its signature dish bun cha ca da nang, which features fried cakes and thick rice noodles in a complex, aromatic broth. There’s no need to mess around with anything else on the menu, according to Tran—just go with what the restaurant does best.
Chao Long Thang Mo
Location: 11513 Bellaire Blvd.
Must try: Pork offal rice porridge
There are just a handful of dishes available on the menu at Chao Long Thang Mo, but the things that they do at this small mom-and-pop restaurant, they do well. Chao Long Thang Mo specializes in comfort dishes like spicy seafood noodle soup, Vietnamese-style cold cuts, and fried dough crullers, but Tran’s favorite dish here is the pork offal rice porridge. This traditional dish is known for its wide availability and affordability in Vietnam and combines pork liver, kidneys, hearts, and other bits in a deeply rich bone broth.
“I would recommend that non-Vietnamese people try this rice porridge, even if they feel they wouldn’t like pork intestines,” Tran says. “To me, it’s our privilege [as Americans] to try these things and see how other countries have used whatever they had on hand for food. And also I love it.”