Written by Super User
A fresh look at Vietnamese cooking in Austin
By Lori Moffatt
Some of my favorite restaurants lie in homely North Austin strip malls surrounded by discount cell-phone providers, used-tire outlets, pawn shops, locksmiths, and public storage facilities. When I’m seeking culinary adventures on a budget, I traipse north of US 183, where a several-mile stretch of Lamar Boulevard harbors the most ethnically diverse assortment of restaurants in the city. Here is where you’ll find vegetarian Indian dosas (think crunchy 18-inch crepes), Korean grilled mackerel, Indian popsickles called kulfi, Hong Kong-style curry buns, and grocery stores specializing in fascinating foodstuffs from throughout the world.
I’m willing to forgive the often-uninspired décor and unflattering lighting for a chance to taste something I’ve never had before. But recently, as foodie friends have adopted a preference for organic and locally sourced cuisine, it’s harder to persuade them to make the trek. Let’s face it: While I’ve always found the food on North Lamar’s restaurant row to be delicious and fresh, these are not restaurants where the cooks have coddled their chickens.
Lately, though, I’ve noticed successful chefs in Austin turning ethnic street food on its ear by preparing it with organic meat and produce. And in the case of Vietnamese food in town, when I dug a little deeper, I discovered a heartening connection between one of the savviest restaurateurs in Austin and a 13-year-old Vietnamese deli known for its baguette sandwiches and cream puffs.
In late 2011, chefs and restaurateurs Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman opened a Vietnamese-French restaurant called Elizabeth Street Café in a former coffee shop in south Austin. Not only do they use organic meats and locally sourced pro- duce, but the décor here—inspired by 1950s Hanoi—makes the café as worthy of a date night as a quick lunch.
What I love about Vietnamese fare—whether it’s prepared at Elizabeth Street Café or at the myriad mom-and-pop joints on North Lamar—lies in its beguiling contrasts: the aroma of grilled meats with fresh mint, basil, and cilantro; the acidic kick of lime and chilies; the curious saltiness of ubiquitous, anchovy-based fish sauce. When it’s cold outside, I crave a satisfying bowl of the noodle soup called pho, fragrant from hours of simmering and brightened at the table with creamy-white bean sprouts, sprigs of basil and cilantro, and a liberal squeeze of lime. Sometimes I’ll order a dish called the banh xeo, a crispy, rice-flour crepe served with a salty-sweet-sour dipping sauce called nuoc cham.
On my last visit to Elizabeth Street, I dug into a simple banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich made with barbecued pork, shredded carrot and cucumber, and thin slices of jalapeños. “What’s cool about Vietnam ese food is that it’s based on inexpensive cuts of meat, noodles and rice, and fresh herbs and vegetables,” Larry told me. “But the reason it works so well in Texas is that it’s a hot-climate food. It’s light and satisfying at the same time, with changes of both texture and temperature—like when you add cold bean sprouts and fresh herbs to a hot soup.”
A few days later at lunch up on North Lamar, I savored spoonfuls of rich beef broth at a little spot called Tam Deli, slurping noodles and watching sisters Tam Bui and Tran Ngoc dash from kitchen to table with platters of soups, vermicelli bowls, and banh mi sandwiches. On the wall next to the bakery case, which is filled with cream puffs and sticky-rice snacks, there’s a photo of Lady Bird Johnson and her family at Tam Deli, along with images of the sisters as teenagers in Vietnam. Water trickled from a bamboo fountain near the doorway, and each time an order was ready, Tam or Tran would ring a little bell, and out came another tempting dish I’d vow to order next time.
Tran was a student at the University of Texas during the 1970s, and after the fall of Saigon in ’75, her family made its way to Texas. Eventually, Tran and Tam opened a restaurant, using family recipes passed down from their mother and relatives in Vietnam.
Famous for its delicate, custard-filled cream puffs; its fabulous banh mi; and during the holidays, its French bûche nöel cake, Tam Deli nonetheless has items on the menu that don’t appeal to me personally. I was unimpressed recently with a salt-and-pepper squid platter (too fried and too plain), but of course home-cooking of all genres has both bold and simple flavors. “I would say that my favorite thing on the menu is our banh xeo,” says Tran. “It’s shrimp and pork in a crepe, and we serve it with leaf lettuce and herbs, and you wrap it up and dip it in nuac cham. We eat that sauce with everything.”
Later, I asked Larry what he thought about some of my North Lamar favorites. “I think the banh mi at Tam Deli is really good,” he told me. “In fact, some of the things on our menu are homages to the menu at Tam, like our shrimp-and-yam fritters. I’ve been eating at Tam Deli since I was in middle school. I’d go there with my mom, and it was one of my favorite places to eat.”
“Vietnamese food, in general, is very light, fresh, and satisfying,” says Tran. “To newcomers, I would say, just give the food a try. I think you will like it.”
Driving around the state researching Texas food history for my new cookbook, Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook, I found out that a heritage food revival is colliding with new cultural currents in the Lone Star State—resulting in all kinds of delicious combinations and mash-ups.
When I take my place in line, nearly a dozen people are ahead of me in front of the bakery counter at the Czech Stop in the town of West. That wouldn’t be surprising—except that it’s almost 3 a.m. At least I’m not the only traveler who’s addicted to kolaches—delicious, yeast-dough pastries filled with fruit, meat, and sometimes vegetables. Even in the wee hours of the morning on a late-night drive to Austin, I can’t pass up the 24/7 bakery that’s the Valhalla of the kolache world. Some people measure trips in miles. I measure them in how many of the tasty Czech treats I can eat along the way.
A longtime hub for innovation in energy and medicine, Houston has come into its own as a vacation destination in recent years.
Marble Falls’ picturesque setting along its namesake lake proves enticing enough, but travelers stick around this Hill Country town for the live music, classic cafés, art galleries, intriguing shops, and annual events that range from a soapbox derby to drag-boat races.
In the January 2014 issue, writer Ramona Flume takes readers to Megg’s Cafe in Temple, a farmhouse-style eatery that sources much of its menu locally and draws crowds for its breakfast, lunch, and dinner offerings. We wondered: What else is there to do in Temple? Turns out, there’s plenty. Here are three spots to get you started.
As Dallas prepares to celebrate the life and legacy of President John F. Kennedy and mark the 50th anniversary of his tragic death on Nov. 22, 1963, Texas Highways shares a few images from the files of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The images offer a glimpse of that fateful day – from the President's arrival and departure from Dallas' Love Field.
Most of my day trips consist of a handful of museums, a bit of outdoors, and lots of great food. But then there are the trips that take me into the remote reaches of Texas; to places without restaurants and streetlights but riddled with adventure. My recent journey was of this kind, as I set out with friends to summit the highest point in Texas: Guadalupe Peak.
Texans have always found a way to break the mold and handle things with their own flair. The same is true for Texas bourbon; despite an unspoken rule to sip it neat, even Leonard Firestone of the Firestone & Robertson Distilling Company in Fort Worth recommends drinking it your way.
As I swerved to miss the potholes along a stretch of warehouses in northeast San Antonio, I finally caught sight of the headquarters for Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling. Even with a towering windmill out front, if it weren’t for the rustic metal sign on the building, I might have imagined that the crowds were waiting for access to a warehouse sample sale. Discounted furniture or couture? Not today: Lucky for us, we were in for an entirely different sort of sampling experience—a Saturday “brewstillery” tour.
We are officially in hurricane season, as of June 1, and meteorological officials predict this will be an “above normal and possibly extremely active” season. Texas Highways wants to make sure that you have the information you need with these Hurricane Preparedness resources, including evacuation routes, checklists and more.
Texas Tips and Resources
Texas Department of Transportation's Hurricane Information page includes valuable resources from preparedness to the state's highway conditions, regional evacuation routes and contraflow lanes.
National Weather Service
Hurricane season ends Nov. 30.
An update on Uvalde’s Briscoe-Garner Museum from TH Associate Editor Matt Joyce. Be sure to check out the April issue of Texas Highways for a feature about visiting Uvalde.
The renovation of the Briscoe-Garner Museum in Uvalde hit a rough patch when a fire broke out in the historic home last December. But repairs from the fire are taking place in tandem with the renovation work, and museum officials expect to reopen the museum this summer.
Nobody was injured in the fire, and because the exhibits are stored for renovation, no items or historical artifacts were damaged, said Ben Wright, spokesman for the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin, which owns the museum.
The $1.1 million renovation of the old Garner Museum began in January 2009. Much of the project has been related to improving the old structure, including foundation and asbestos-abatement work, Wright said. The museum is posting updates on its Facebook page.
Vice President John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner lived in the home on North Park Street for more than 30 years. The museum first opened to the public in 1973 with exhibits focused on Garner’s life and career.
As part of the renovation, the second floor will be opened to the public for the first time, featuring exhibits related to Governor Dolph Briscoe.
“Governor Briscoe connects us with the narrative of the rest of our state, and Vice President Garner connects us with the national narrative,” Wright said. “It connects the local community in very special and meaningful ways with the state and national history.”