"Are you eating paleo now?" asked Minh Nguyen as he took my order for a large bowl of JD's WG Squamicelli. The dish with the cumbersome name is just one of several that Nguyen offers on his menu at Cafe TH, the cozy Vietnamese bistro in EaDo that's known for both its traditional fare and its more creative offerings that range from paleo-friendly to full-on vegan. While the banh mi and banh bot chien are terrific here, you haven't lived until you've tasted Cafe TH's outstanding vegan pho or vegan ca ri (Vietnamese curry)—whether you're a carnivore or not.
"Nope," I responded. "Not eating paleo, just trying to eat healthier." The bowl of Squamicelli seemed just the ticket, replacing the rice vermicelli in a standard bowl of bun with thick, soft strands of spaghetti squash (hence the name). Piled on top were more vegetables—julienned carrots and zucchini—and tender chunks of chargrilled chicken. Below the squash were still more veggies: bean sprouts and various torn greens.
Nguyen is not only the chef and owner at Cafe TH, but its front-of house man as well. He takes the orders, rings you up, and will tell you anything you want to know about either Vietnamese food or his charmingly eccentric array of healthy offerings. In this way, the bistro functions as a fascinating example of the types of second-generation Vietnamese restaurant that are springing up all over town.
Vietnamese food is on its way to becoming as prevalent in Houston as Tex-Mex—the "ethnic" food that our children and grandchildren may no longer consider ethnic at all, but a normal, everyday part of the landscape. Nguyen started Cafe TH as a sandwich shop in 2006, taking over once its former owners—first-generation Vietnamese immigrants—retired. They had run the little spot on Pease as a successful banh mi shop called Thiem Hung, and the Cafe TH moniker is a nod to its former roots.
At first, banh mi was all that Cafe TH offered. But Nguyen had bigger plans, and eventually developed an entire menu of classic Vietnamese favorites from banh mi bo kho to bun bo Hue. Along the way, Nguyen also created a few dishes based on his customers' favorite orders. Abby's Uncommon Combo is an order of spring rolls and a half order of banh bot chien, while the Gluttonous Ellis is a banh mi with double pork, double chicken, double tofu, and double veggies on a wheat baguette.
A wheat baguette isn't a standard offering in a banh mi shop, but Nguyen brought them in anyway. He'll do just about anything for his customers. Many of them told Nguyen that they'd like to see more vegetarian, vegan, and paleo-friendly dishes, so he added those to the menu too, researching ingredients and cooking techniques in his spare time.
The end result is a menu that offers something for everyone, which is one of the reasons I find myself at Cafe TH so often. Nguyen was worried that no one would order the paleo dishes except the customers who requested them, but the opposite has happened: An entirely new customer base was created.
"The Ironman Jay is our most popular dish," Nguyen noted. It's a heaping plate of stir-fried lemongrass beef and vegetables over a bed of lettuce, mint, purple cabbage, and bean sprouts. "And lots of people order the Abby's Uncommon Combo." My personal favorite off the paleo menu is the Birdie Galore, which gets you an entire roast chicken quarter with broccoli, asparagus, portobello mushrooms, onions, and still more vegetables underneath.
You'll notice a little icon next to certain dishes, too, which indicate that they're "Washington Gym-approved." The owner of Washington Gym, a fierce personality and hard-core personal trainer named James Dang, helped Nguyen put a few of these paleo recipes together so that his gym members would have quick-and-easy dining options at one of Dang's favorite restaurants.
"I'd never worked with spaghetti squash before," admitted Nguyen. "James showed me how easy it was." Now, the steamed squash is lightly sweetened with a bit of agave nectar before being scraped out in its signature spaghetti-like strands into Nguyen's Squamicelli dish.
It's not a bowl of bun, but it's not the next-best thing either: The Squamicelli is a dish that stands deliciously on its own, which is my favorite kind of good-for-you grub.