From 1975-1988, 1.2 million Vietnamese families resettled in Houston. Houston’s Midtown neighborhood was home to “Little Saigon,” bustling with businesses like tailors, markets, and restaurants. Though current-day Midtown is in a bit of a shift, remnants of that cultural evolution can be found on the street signs in the area, many of which are in Vietnamese. Those waves of immigration contributed to the leveling up of our city’s reputation as the next great culinary epicenter. Today, the avatar of Houston’s culinary identity is just as likely to be a bánh mì as it is to be a taco or a steak or a bowl of queso.
The very first Vietnamese restaurant to open in Houston was Mai’s in 1978. This Midtown favorite was tragically destroyed by fire in 2010, but was thankfully rebuilt and is now running better than ever. Open until 3 AM on weekdays and 4 AM on weekends, Mai’s has always been the best of all late-night options after painting the town red. Mai’s knocks it out of the park in garlic dishes, like their garlic beef, garlic chicken, and garlic tofu. Their most popular dish is the bo luc lac (shaken beef) but vegetarians and meat-eaters alike should try the amazing salt-toasted tofu. Side note: Mai’s once again secures its place as #1 in Houston with the recent launch of the Mobile Mai’s food truck!
Just up the street from Mai’s is Les Givral Sandwich & Cafe, a lunch favorite for killer bánh mì. Les Givral closes at 6 PM, so it’s all about that lunchtime rush. Upon entering the small establishment, you’ll likely be greeted by a line. Fret not, for it moves quickly. Though they serve noodle dishes and pho, you just can’t beat their sandwiches — all of which are under $3 (yes, you read that right). The chargrilled pork, meatball, and tofu bánh mì come highly recommended, but make sure to grab a Vietnamese coffee for some bone-buzzing, heart-thumping caffeine deliciousness.
In the very next parking lot, you’ll find Pho Saigon, a Midtown mainstay for all things pho. Another popular lunchtime destination, Pho Saigon’s prices and portions are unbeatable. A “small” soup will likely leave enough for leftovers, and the pho tai (beef noodle soup with eye round steak) and pho ga (chicken noodle soup) are no more than $6. If it’s chilly outside or if you’re feeling under the weather, there’s nothing like pho to cure what ails you. Order a Thai iced tea with your meal for a caffeine buzz that rivals even the finest coffee shop cup of Joe.
Our Viet newcomers can still hold their own weight among the Midtown classics — see Montrose’s Les Noo’dle, for example. Their top hits are polar opposites, but either one will steal your heart no matter where you exist on the dietary spectrum. Try the tender filet mignon pho or the vegan pho for an out-of-this-world experience that completely transcends the concept of “soup.”
Your Vietnamese bucket list is not complete until you experience the uniquely Houston creation of Viet-Cajun cuisine. We’ve written about the world’s best fusion food before, so read up on your options and give it a go!