A steady stream of customers flowed through the Duc Huong storefront one recent day between lunch and dinner time, picking out traditional Vietnamese prepared meat products and other take-home delicacies made in-house.
But compared to what happens in the two weeks before the Asian Lunar New Year, the scene was serene.
In the run-up to the annual holiday, the line of customers is long, stretching to the outdoor walkway at the Universal Shopping Center on Bellaire Boulevard in the International Management District, as families observing the joyful occasion buy items to give as gifts or include in sumptuous meals.
The main draw is Duc Huong’s daily output of pressed beef, pork and chicken loaves wrapped in fragrant banana leaves and cinched with colored ribbon to signal which kinds of meat they contain.
The shop makes the cylindrical meat packages daily and stacks them on the sale counter in mounds, where the packages stay warm from the cooking process. In Vietnamese, the specialty is called chả lụa.
As part of a family-owned chain of meat stores across the country, Duc Huong is affiliated with store in Dallas and others in California. This means that many Vietnamese-Americans traveling through Houston from near and far stop by to snap up meat packages they cannot find in fresh condition where they live.
Thuy Nguyen, tending to business behind the counter while wearing an apron, explained that she and her husband, Chinh Bui, own the Houston outlet as part of the family that passed down the Duc Huong name.
Nguyen, who was born in Saigon, Vietnam, said the couple opened the business in 2007 and has been preparing locally supplied meat in the shop ever since.
Although the bologna-like loaves stay fresh in their green wrappings for days, she said, the shop’s trademark is that it makes the products every day.
“That’s why people like it,” she said, “because it smells very fresh.”
For shoppers new to the product, chả lụa is made with ground meat mixed with seasonings, most of them mild. The beef version, for instance, is seasoned with fish sauce, salt, sugar, corn starch, garlic and pepper.
Half circle slices of chả lụa often show up in Vietnamese sandwiches and atop bowls of soup. The slices are also popular as snacks to go with beer. But they also might be at home as a substitute for delicatessen meat in sandwiches and cooked dishes.
To be clear, Duc Huong isn’t a restaurant. The grab-and-go, cash-only nature of the business meant it was able to get through the worst of the COVID pandemic without losing its customer base.
And as indicated, Duc Huong offers other made-in-house products such as shredded, dried pork that goes well with noodles, soups and other Vietnamese standards.
An online reviewer on menupix.com wrote, “I’m from Arizona. Every time I went to Houston I had to stop by the Duc Huong.” His favorite product? An item made with snails.
Along with the shop edibles are cold drinks — in a see-through cooler topped by a statue of Jesus Christ.
Duc Huong Gio Cha
11380 Bellaire Boulevard
Open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Wednesdays
— By Alan Bernstein with interview translation by Annie Trinh