With such a staggering multitude of restaurants to choose from, dining out in the International District is a daunting task even in the best of times, and now that COVID-19 has set the whole planet askew, it can seem at first even more bewildering. Much of what we once took for granted about dining out is now tenuous. How do we know if a place will be open? If it’s open, are all normal menu items available? We now have to ask questions like this on top of navigating the ever-present complexities of our sprawling Chinatown.
A good one-stop navigational tool has popped up on Facebook in the form of the Chow Down in Chinatown – Houston group. Founded by local man-about-town and frequent Chinatown diner Stevie Vu, the group’s mission is both to give up-to-the-minute information about Chinatown dining — what is still open? What’s on the menu these days? — as well as allay misplaced fears swirling around COVID-19.
“We want to give awareness that the coronavirus should not be associated with Asian restaurants and/or their communities because of diners’ misinformed fears that the virus is more prevalent there,” Vu writes. “We are officially living in a COVID-19 world. Our economy is suffering, both on a national level and locally. Unfortunately, Chinatown restaurants and other businesses were being hit the hardest long before the outbreak reached the States as a result of the novel coronavirus due to stigma and xenophobic sentiments.”
There is no association between the virus and race, Vu continues. “If you’re comfortable going out, consider supporting these businesses and sharing your experiences. Even if you’re staying in, many of them—and others—deliver.
I think a lot of people are wondering… can one day really change everything? Can one person who doesn’t frequent the area regularly make a difference? The answer is Yes. It’s about bringing attention. It’s about showing support and being there for the community. Diverse cultural heritages aside, we’re all Houston Strong.”
Well, as for me, it takes more than irrational fear of a particular part of Houston to stand between me and a great banh mi, and so I joined Chow Down in Chinatown for tips on where to find some of the best in Houston right now. (Also scrolling past threads about pho, where to buy boba tea by the gallon (with your choice of sinker), Peking duck, and Chinese barbecue, to name a few.)
Actually my thread started out as one man’s quest for a particular, hard-to-find style: banh mi bo luc lac, or “shaking beef” banh mi. Among the things I learned on that thread: 1) that such a banh mi existed; 2) that anything can go in a banh mi if you’re brave enough; 3) that these are time-consuming to make, or they would be everywhere, and probably a staple of Houston dining; and 4) that I would join that particular quest later, because I learned of the existence of My Baguettes in Saigon Houston Plaza, just to the left of the big clock tower in the middle of the square.
It’s a scratch kitchen — all its baguettes, croissants, and condiments are made on-site. Its interior is sparse but cheery, one wall dominated by a delightful mustachioed French chihuahua? (‘Ow do we know ‘eez Franch? Ze beret, mon ami.) In other words, purpose built for quick trips in and out, especially if you call ahead with your order. (Curbside service is available; also delivery via Doordash and Uber Eats. See details below.) The service is genuinely warm and sincerely friendly.
My daughter and I popped in one afternoon and decided to munch our banh mi al fresco in the shady grove near the playground in the sprawling Arthur Storey Park nearby. While signs there warn of alligators, we were beset only by strutting grackles and crawling asps — beware the stinging caterpillars there this time of year.
My Baguette’s attention to quality and detail absolutely shone through in the special I ordered — the thit nguoi (cold cut plate) baguette — a banh mi that comes deconstructed, with meats (pork belly, ham, deboned chicken, pate), house-made mayo, shredded carrots and cilantro to be assembled into the provided baguette — perfectly balanced between crisp crust and chewy center — as you see fit. The one I made was a glorious mess — not much to look at thanks to my hungry and inexperienced hands, but absolutely delicious, and a joy to eat amid the grackle racket and dappled, wind-blown sunshine of Arthur Storey Park. Harriet’s thit nuong (grilled pork) was another hit, and the two of us can’t wait to return. Personally, I will be getting my hands on their bo ne (sizzling filet mignon, egg, pate, mayo, xiu mai, with baguette and vinaigrette salad) sooner rather than later.
All in all, this picnic came much closer to heaven than the apocalypse.
10613 Bellaire Blvd, Ste. A125
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