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Houston's Little Saigon

Written by William Dylan Powell.

Texas really is like a whole other country. But on top of the Texas experience, visitors to Houston get an international deal with the city’s multiple cultures. Just a few blocks from downtown, Houston becomes Little Saigon, a vibrant neighborhood offering authentic Vietnamese dining and shopping with no travel visa required (though your Visa card wouldn’t hurt).

This part of Houston’s midtown, near Louisiana and Milam streets, was the original settlement of Vietnamese refugees in Houston after the collapse of Saigon and South Vietnam in 1975. By 1981, Houston had the largest Vietnamese population outside of California. Although Vietnamese immigrants often arrived with nothing but hope, generations of hard work have made these Houstonians and their native culture a cherished part of the city.

“Their experience is what it’s all about; it’s the real American dream,” notes Rene Cuenod, as he and Dr. Joseph Reilly share a table at Little Saigon’s Mai’s Restaurant. Mai’s is easy to miss. But those who find the Milam Street gem almost always come back. Mai’s was the first Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, started by Phim and Phac Nguyen in 1978, and for some, it’s the ultimate Vietnamese restaurant in the Lone Star State.

Zagat-rated Mai’s is open until 4 a.m. on weekends because of the constant demand. Like in a casino, there’s no lunch or dinner crowd—just a steady flow of faces and authentic Vietnamese cuisine: Crab meat with asparagus soup. Beef stew with French bread. Stir-fried squid with pineapple and tomato. This is where lovers of true Vietnamese cuisine go to get their fix. Mai’s is also famous for its authentic Vietnamese drinks such as iced coffee, salted lemonade with soda, and café au lait. And the prices are reasonable. “In New Orleans, this would be a $40 meal,” notes Mai’s regular Dr. Reilly. “Here, you’re looking at maybe 11 bucks.”

The Crossline Art Gallery, just down Milam Street, offers an interesting mix of high-end Vietnamese photography. The gallery rotates its selection about every two months and offers exquisite works for just a few hundred dollars. Around the corner is the Hoà Bình supermarket, where cooks who want to try Vietnamese dishes can get everything they need: sheets of tapioca, vermicelli noodles, and more than a half-dozen Asian brands of oyster sauce alone. There’s no Vietnamese ingredient you can’t find at Hoà Bình. And even if you’re not into cooking, just browsing promises something interesting. From shrimp-flavored chips to jackfruit and coconut cookies (even authentic French coffees), this is the place to come for souvenir snacking.

French influence on Vietnamese culture is still strong, and the quality of baked goods in Houston’s Little Saigon reflects this. Le Bec Fin and La Baguette bakeries, tucked inconspicuously into strip malls on Milam, offer arguably some of the best baked goods in town, as well as true colonial French flavor. Le Bec Fin serves an excellent Vietnamese French-bread sandwich known as banh mi, and cakes that look (almost) too pretty to eat. La Baguette, across the street, sells dozens of pastry varieties and has French bread so good that it’s delivered daily to several ritzy Houston restaurants. And if you’re looking for something to read (or just look at) after all this food, Thien Nga sells everything from the latest Vietnamese film titles (subtitles available) to Vietnamese newspapers and magazines.

If you have some extra time, head out to the newer Vietnamese neighborhood on Houston’s Westside (see page 25 of print edition). While the city’s historic Little Saigon has been the center of the urban-Texas Vietnamese experience, rising property values have driven many to Houston’s Bellaire Boulevard. Here, the street signs, menus, and businesses are all entirely in Vietnamese. On a stroll up and down Bellaire, you’ll find Vietnamese soup shops, fish markets, jewelry stores, and more—you can even buy a discounted airline ticket to Vietnam. And don’t forget karaoke! Both 2000 Karaoke & Sportbar (in the Bellaire West Shopping Center) and Vy Café Karaoke (8282 Bellaire) are the real deal.

Whether visiting historic Little Saigon or exotic Pan-Asian sites along Bellaire, Houston’s Vietnamese scene is an eclectic blend of southeast Texas and Southeast Asia that you just won’t find anywhere else.

Houston’s Little Saigon is in the Midtown district, 5 minutes southwest of downtown. Mai’s Restaurant is at 3403 Milam St.; 713/520-7684; www.maisrestauranttx.com. Le Bec Fin is at 2801 Milam; 713/526-1110; www.lebecfinbakery.com. Hoà Bình supermarket is at 2800 Travis St.; 713/520-9558. The Crossline Art Gallery is at 2809 Milam, Ste. A; 713/817-1126. Thien Nga bookstore is at 2929 Milam. The city’s newer Little Saigon/Chinatown area is on Houston’s Westside, around Bellaire Blvd. and Beltway 8 (Sam Houston Tollway).

From the April 2005 issue.

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