thien an

thien an sandwiches
2905 travis nr. tuam

thien an is my midtown lunch destination for pho. and apparently everyone else's. the place was PACKED when i walked in around 1 pm on random week day. the room was filled with half asians and half caucasians. we had to stand around waiting for a table to be cleaned off.

everyone orders the banh xeo here for some reason. it's a crepe made out of rice flower, coconut milk, and tumeric for color that is usually filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, and onions. it's wrapped in lettuce leaves and herbs like cilantro and mint and then dipped in fish sauce. yes, thien an's is HUGE - surface area wise - but it's so flat. it's all crepe and no filling which i think it pretty lame. i noticed that 1/3 of the tables had one on their table. big half moon yellow crepes kept flying out of the kitchen. why are they all ordering it? am i missing something?

i love the pho here. this was my pho tai. pho actually refers to the thin rice noodles at the bottom of the bowl. pho is pronounced like you are asking a question 'fuh?' (not like you're saying fo realz). tai refers to the thin slices of rare beef (usually eye of round) that are placed into piping hot bowls of pho broth. the hot soup cooks the beef.

a plate of bean sprouts, lime, sliced jalapeno, and herbs such as cilantro, basil, and culantro accompanies each bowl. thien an garnishes each bowl with cilantro before it leaves the kitchen so none is on the plate, but you can request more by asking (or more efficiently, just point to what's already in your bowl). there are only 1 or 2 employees at most that speak fluent english.

good pho is all in the broth. pho broth is made by boiling down beef bones, oxtails, and spices such as vietnamese cinnamon, star of anise, ginger, and cloves. thien an's is especially flavorful b/c i think they use a little extra cinnamon in their recipe. anyway, there is nothing adventurous in my bowl today. i'm not a fan of tripe in my pho but i do like tendon, fatty brisket, and sometimes meat balls. today, i was attempting to be healthy and i already ordered the banh xeo too, but J. did a good job helping me eat it. he was a banh xeo virgin until today. boy, it's fun eating out with me!

this was J's vermicelli bowl with thit nuong (grilled pork chop) and cha gio (fried egg rolls). i wasn't offered a bite and i prefer my thit nuong over crushed rice with a fried egg on top anyways.

thien an is cash only, they are closed on saturdays, and they close at 6 pm on other nights. you can find me here almost once every week eating a cheap lunch.


beijing olympics closing ceremonies - part 1

fung's kitchen
7320 southwest fwy # 115 nr. bellaire

to commemorate the end of the beijing summer olympics, the houston chowhounds and i hit the streets of chinatown twice on sunday. the events were even scheduled so we could take a nap in between AND be home to watch the broadcast of the real closing ceremonies in beijing. first, dim sum at fung's kitchen. it was already packed by 11 am.

we started with pretty standard dim sum fare...

siu mai (listed as "fung's steamed shrimp & pork dumpling"

har gau (list as "steamed shrimp dumpling")

chinese "broccoli w/ oyster sauce"

"steamed beef ball"- was okay

"steam bbq pork bun"

congee (listed as "rice soup/pork egg")

"deep fried taro puff" - really good, but greasy

inside the deep fried taro puff is ground pork

shrimp cheong fun (listed as "steam shrimp rice noodle") - i love the sweet soy sauce this is served in

"steam pork spare ribs w/ black bean sauce"- my favorite dim sum dish

"steam shrimp balls with sticky rice"

"sticky rice w/ meat wrap lotus leaf"

view of inside the lotus leaf (chicken, chinese sausage, black mushroom, ground pork) - yum

"chicken feet with black bean sauce"

then the interesting stuff came by. we passed on pig ears but we did order...

chicken feet with sweet & spicy sauce (cold)- firm and gelatinous, not my favorite preparation

bean curd skin with cilantro (cold) - love it!

conch & cucumber salad - delish

duck chins - big tease. the little bit of meat on there was so difficult to get at.

this is what our table looked like and...

this is what our bill looked like so far...

but we still had to check out the hot food stall where we ordered...

duck feet with black mushrooms

spicy fried chicken wings

pig's feet in ginger vinegar sauce

then the dessert cart came by... (or one of them anyway)

these little "pears" were filled with lotus seed paste

"french egg pudding"

these birdies were filled with yellow bean paste

mango pudding

next up, part 2 is peking duck dinner at peking cuisine...


au petit paris - a photo journal

au petit paris
2048 colquitt st nr. shepherd.

from the moment i walked in, i knew i was in for a treat....

foie gras terrine (yes, that is a strip of fat on top), belgium endive dressed in balsamic vinaigrette, balsamic reduction & EVOO. served with a thick slice of toasted brioche and housemade country bread.
notes: very creamy. balsamic balanced the fattiness of the foie nicely. endive was appreciated separately but didn't really connect with the terrine. very, very good. better than le mistral's.

frog legs "sautéed en persillade, zest of lemon juice"
notes: expected to see much more parsley from the persillade. generous portion however the sauce tasted watered down. would not order again.

off menu special: black cod crusted with macadamia nuts over asparagus carnoli risotto and white corn. deep fried basil leaf garnish.
notes: delicious dish, beautifully composed flavors. loved the crispness and sweetness of fresh white corn.

roasted rack of lamb served over creamy polenta and baked provencal tomato
notes: lovely char on lamb, polenta served like cafeteria style mashed potatoes was cute with au jus, the tomato was naturally sweet but a little too mushy.

lemon sorbet over fresh berries.

notes: sorbet was nice and not usually served like this. our waiter said he made it extra pretty since he knew i was going to take a photo. usually served on a tain tartin. don't know what that is but anything tartin sounds delicious to me.

we shared desserts with our neighbors. this is what they ordered...

crepes “au petit paris” served with vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate sauce
notes: scoop of ice cream wrapped in a crepe like a beggar's purse. cute presentation. was good but nothing mindblowing.

2006 domaine de la rossignole "cuvée vieilles vignes" sancerre $48. i'm a sucker for sancerre and this one was one of the best i've had. crisp, refreshing, great fruit. retails for $25 at spec's.

restaurant notes: the attitude is as authentic as the food. first we asked our server if we could move to a 4 top once a table got up and his reply was, "sorry but we aren't setting any more tables tonight." i was a little shocked. my friend and i were sitting at a tiny 2 top in the middle of the restaurant and later when our appetizers arrived our table was completely overtaken by just the plates involved in those 2 dishes. the waiter came back and apologized for his response earlier and moved us to the table in the corner immediately. perhaps, he thought i was someone important since i was snapping photos of all the food as it came out.

chef dominique visited the table after he sent our waiter over to ask why i was taking photos. he seemed somewhat threatened by me. even so, i appreciated chatting with him. he walked over to another table as well afterwards and we heard him give the same schpeel about teaching at johnson & wales in providence, RI before moving to houston. we were told chef eric was in the house too that evening but we didn't even catch a glimpse of him even as the restaurant was winding down.

fyi, they have recently changed their hours of operation. the restaurant now seats their last table at 9 pm on weeknights even though they have not updated this info on their website.


ramen quest - strike 2

8979 westheimer rd nr. fondren

nope, sasaki's ramen didn't cut it either. you can tell by just looking at it. yes, this is strike two on the ramen quest for me. i'm slowly going down my list of japanese owned restaurants in houston and so far i'm coming up with nothing. this is their shoyu (soy sauce) ramen. it tasted as boring as it looked. it looked healthy! the chashu pork was lean and chewy, not soft or buttery at all. at least nippon's was better than this one and had lots of tender chashu in it.

this is what santouka's shoyu ramen looks like, this is the holy grail of ramens. just look at the grease floating on the top of the broth. look at the fattiness of the chashu. santouka is actually more famous for their shio (salt) ramen but i can't even find anyone in houston that makes it. the ramen quest continues.

this is misha's chirashi lunch. the tamago pieces were huge and very good (which in jenny language means not too sweet). i forgot to ask him how his sushi was, but i didn't hear him gripe (which he is quite good at) so i guess it was decent enough for him - which translates into "very good" to the rest of us.

this was D.'s cold buckwheat noodles. they were served with a soy sauce based dipping sauce on the side with minced scallions and wasabi on the side to taste. it was refreshing but not that exciting.

i asked our server if they had softshell crawfish. she nodded so i ordered three since misha and dorothy had never tried it before. fried softshell crab came to the table instead and when i told her i asked for softshell crawfish, she said they never carry it. of course we didn't turn the crab away, but FYI, kaneyama has fried softshell crawfish sometimes.

here's a close up of our fried softshell crab. it was excellent. smaller than nippon's but tastier.

what's next on the ramen quest? i just found this photo of the ramen at kaneyama on yelp. that's not right either... a blog commenter left a tip that i should try sushi jin's. or maybe i'll give teppay a shot. but even better, i'm going back to LA next week. i shall return to the mecca of ramen for my fix. i will come back bearing better photos i promise.


beijing hot pot eating olympics

sichuan cuisine
9114 bellaire blvd @ ranchester

last week, i took a hiatus from houston restaurant week, a clouded week of overindulgence in butter, bordelaise, braised short ribs, and creme brulee, to commemorate the beijing summer olympics (or anything for that matter) the way i do best. by eating! we hit chinatown of course! my tummy was looking forward to simple comfort food - one of my favorite things to eat in the world. soup.

on the menu for the evening? sichuan hot pot!

i noticed sichuan hot pot on the menu during my last visit to sichuan cuisine when the houston chowhounds and i were there on our 4 hour soup dumpling crawl. when we walked in this friday evening there were 4 other tables seated with asian patrons. three of those tables already had their own hot pot parties going. this was a good sign! we could see the fiery red pepper spiked broths bubbling, plates of raw meats and veggies laid out, and we were eager to participate ourselves.

we were first seated at a normal square shaped table for 4. when we told our server we were ordering hot pot she first warned us that they close at 10 pm. it was 8:30 at that time, which is an indication that hot pot is usually a long, drawn out affair. i remember when my brother and i used to groan when we found out we were having hot pot at home for supper. it guaranteed that we would be sitting at the dinner table for at least an hour or even longer if we had guests over. our friendly server, the same one from my last visit here, hurried back to the kitchen to tell them to get our soups started and came back with the hot pot menu. she then moved us to a big round table, which we were all excited about.

on the regular menu, sichuan hot pot is listed simply as "house special mini hot pot" for $13.95. however ordering community style hot pot is much more complicated than that. a pen and a separate menu printed on half a sheet of white paper will be brought to you for ordering.

first, choose your soup: yuanyang (half spicy, half mild), all spicy, or all mild. we were ready to go spicy all the way, but the server recommended yuanyang. judging by the look on her face, i knew we had better take her advice.

secondly, pick your raw ingredients, as many as you like:
meats: lamb, shrimp, beef, beef omasum (tripe), lunch meat (spam), intestine, pork blood, fish ball, shrimp ball, crab meat (the fake stuff), sliced fish, sliced chicken, squid
veggies: spinach, gongcai, potato, fungus (mushroom), napa cabbage, eggplant, A choy, cilantro, taro, bamboo shoots, seaweed
others: tofu, cellophane noodles, lo mein noodles, egg (raw), wonton

(L to R) sliced fish, shrimp, tripe, chicken (middle), cilantro, wontons, potatoes, gongcai

A choy, napa, lamb, beef

lastly, pick your dipping sauces: sesame oil, sa tsa sauce (chinese barbecue sauce, made from soybean oil, garlic, shallots, chillis, brill fish and dried shrimp), and/or sesame sauce. dipping sauces cost $1 each for half a small bowl. we ordered the sa tsa and sesame sauce. neither were very interesting, but weren't bad either.

how to eat hot pot: first the electric burner will be brought to the table. by this time we had already scarfed down a plate of 3 cold appetizers selected from the cold table in the back. we chose garlic cucumbers, sliced beef and mow, and sichuan beef jerky. next the hot pot arrives already filled with both broths. huge platters of raw and frozen food start arriving at the table. at this point, the server lights the burner for us.

the premise is simple. raw food goes into the boiling broth and is left long enough to cook. food is then fished it out with chinese spiders and can be dipped in various sauces to taste. ladles are used to scoop out broth which is usually enjoyed after all the food is cooked. i like drinking the soup all the way through hot pot activities. it's my favorite part of the fun!

a few tips. first, wait for the water to boil before throwing in too many cold items. you don't want the temperature to drop too low. frozen foods such as wontons need to be cooked for at least 8 mins, so throw some of those in first. also stalky vegetables, like napa cabbage, along with potatoes, and chicken usually require longer cooking times so put those in too. tripe, fish and shrimp balls, squid, and tofu don't require a lot of time and don't need to be watched too carefully either.

shrimp and thinly sliced meat such as beef and lamb cook the fastest and care should be taken to not overcook them. make sure the broth is boiling before throwing them in and then shrimp should be pulled out as soon as they turn bright pink, sliced meats should cook through after 30 seconds in the pot. noodles are usually cooked through and just need to be reheated. veggies such as spinach an gongcai cook quickly and will shrink when cooked.

a good safety measure to always remember is to dip your chopsticks in the boiling pot for several seconds after handling raw meats. or simply use a separate pair of chopsticks for eating.

the sichuan side of the pot was extremely spicy and ma la. "ma la" means "numb" and "hot" in chinese and refers to the numbing, tingly sensation of sichuan or flower peppers (hua jiao) . the taste is very unique and fragrant with notes of anise and clove. one of my dinner guests had to take a break b/c the ma la was so overwhelming. i told him to stick to the mild side for awhile. if the spicy side gets too overwhelming, one of the advantages of ordering yuan ying is the versatility - you can add some of the mild broth to the sichuan side of the pot to tame the heat. and if you need more broth as it will inevitably evaporate, just ask your server to bring some more around.

the traditional dipping sauce is made by mixing sa tsa, a raw egg, cilantro, chilis, and soy sauce to taste. we forgot to order eggs, and by the time food started arriving i never asked for it. also, several things we ordered never arrived such as squid, tofu, spinach, mushrooms, eggplant, and seaweed. my advice is to ask for 2 copies of the menu, check off the selections you want on each and keep a copy for the table. however, there were no complaints by anyone at our table. we couldn't even finish the food they brought to us. this is what our hot pot looked like when we were done:

chinatown is cheap right? but just how cheap? at sichuan cuisine, hot pot is a per person charge and an all you can eat affair. hot pot for 2 will cost $15 pp, but for 3 or more it is $13 pp. this is also an option for chinese pickle fish soup for $8 a pot extra, which comes with a live fish (i do remember seeing a live fish tank in the back of the resto). no one in the restaurant was eating fish hot pot and i'm not sure i've ever seen it. dipping sauces are $1 each and are enough for 3 or 4 people.

with a full belly, looking at what was left in the hot pot, i asked tatitraveller who just got back from 3 weeks in china what she thought of our dinner. she said she had better sichuan hot pot in a place that specialized in it in beijing, but she said she has also had worse in china. tatitraveller also surmised that the meats here in the US were better quality but decided that the sauces in china were much tastier.

the last tip i leave you with and perhaps the most important one is sichuan cuisine is a BYOB establishment. we stopped by welcome food center in the same shopping center to pick up some cold tsingtao beer to enjoy the evening with. the refrigerated case at welcome was almost DOA. tatitraveller even added that it wasn't bing pijiu (cold beer). how cute that she learned the essential chinese words during her visit there. so stop somewhere else for the booze.

also see 7/6/08 review of sichuan cuisine

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