When you learn that a Vietnamese restaurant that has made multiple appearances on the Houston Chronicle’s "Top 100 Restaurants in Houston," you get more than a little excited. And, you have fairly high expectations, which you reasonably assume, will be mostly, if not entirely met.
Not only did this not occur at Huynh but my visit was so meh, as the kids like to say, that the only reason I am vaguely considering returning for round two is the restaurant’s confounding great reputation. It's true that sometimes the vox populi, due to lack of reference points, experience with the cuisine in question—and heck, mutated taste buds—can be inaccurate in their evaluations.
Here is my background with regards to the aforementioned factors. I have traveled and eaten fairly extensively in the southern region of Vietnam, but even more relevantly, I think, I have dined at good number of Vietnamese restaurants in Houston, such as Saigon Pagolac, whose food I found far superior to that which I ate at Huynh. And, while I am not a super-taster, my taste buds have not been razed like this poor chap. Finally, my two other dining companions, both of whom have also eaten much Vietnamese food in Houston, also were overwhelmingly underwhelmed with their food (and we all ordered different items).
In my first forkful of the goi vit, I was greeted by a tender strip of duck, whose fattiness was well tempered by the shredded cabbage, onions, and cilantro. Unfortunately, such balance could not be sustained because the salad contained only scant pieces of poultry, already sliced very thin. That and a paltry amount of nuts meant I was forced to douse the entire thing in the ginger “dipping” sauce for any flavor.
Disappointed but undeterred, I transitioned to my banh cuon nhan thit and banh cuon tom chay. Though supposedly constructed with “freshly made rice paper,” the casing had the texture of soggy double-ply toilet paper and an equally unappetizing bland flavor. I ploughed through the edible version of Charmin, hoping that what lay inside would at least partially redeem this disaster of dish, only to find that the pork was more burned than “char-grilled” and so desiccated that even a heavy ladle of sauce didn’t provide sufficient moisture. And the dried shrimp? Excessively salty and almost non-existent both in terms of actual size and number. I guess Woody Allen would have liked it.
My two friends didn’t fare much better. The one who ordered the Phoenix Chicken, something of a signature at Huynh, said she was surprised to bite into arid, unmarinated (and apparently unseasoned) game hen, when she was expecting something like the juicy, ginger-saturated com ga at Pho Ni. Its bed of "house rice" was equally dry and flavorless, though the sweet dipping sauce and pile of kimchi-style cabbage were pleasant enough.
The only positive aspect of the experience was the service. (I think. But more on that in a bit.) Our waiter was remarkably patient in answering my questions about the menu and offered helpful commentary on portions, spice level, and “gut-busting potential” (my term: I was very hungry). I appreciated also at the time that dishes began to appear in rapid fashion (less than 10 minutes in one case). However, looking back, I wonder if such alacrity was due to the fact that many of our items weren’t cooked to order but rather just reheated or re-dunked in the fryer.
I recognize that on any given Sunday an otherwise consistently decent restaurant can dole out not-great food. But reading through others’ accounts of similarly lackluster meals suggests, perhaps, the emperor has no ao gam.