Hughie's Vietnamese Tavern and Grille may be the quintessential Houston restaurant at this point in time, perfectly capturing that transitory moment when Vietnamese food officially transitioned into the mainstream.
1802 W. 18th
Six months after opening in a repurposed fast food joint near Timbergrove, Hughie's was packed to its rafters last night with a crowd that would make a United Colors of Benetton ad look like the cast of Friends. A handful of servers scurried across the dimly-lit dining room, which is—as the name would imply—half tavern and half grill. Hughie's serves a well-curated selection of draft and bottled craft beers rivaled in price only by The Flying Saucer (and even cheaper on Friday and Saturday nights, when all beers are a measly $3), alongside a menu of classic Vietnamese, American, and Vietnamese-American dishes. And what struck me last night was not how ingenoius the jumbled-up menu was, nor how smart it is to pair up beer with Vietnamese food (most Asian cuisines pair more easily with beer than wine—a fact Nobi Pub in Clear Lake has amply demonstrated for a while now), but how downright normal it all seemed.
This is how I came to order a chicken fried steak (or "country fried steak," as Hughie's calls it) with a side of spring roll and garlic fried rice. There's often an illicit thrill that comes with ordering items that shouldn't really work together: boudin kolaches, macaroni-and-cheese-stuffed egg rolls, Doritos-topped pizza. But in this context, it was natural. Chicken fried steak sounded good, and so did fried rice. And it's not like there's no precedent here: Timmy Chan's has been serving wicked good chicken and fried rice to Houstonians for years.
Alongside the chicken fried steak, I ordered a burger that had already been pioneered in Houston by The Burger Guys (may they rest in ketchup-covered peace): a banh mi burger, this one—unlike The Saigon at The Burger Guys—sans a fried egg, but topped with thin matchsticks of carrots, fat lengths of cucumber, cilantro, and a Sriracha mayonnaise. A juicy, hand-formed patty on a sweet bun recalled The Saigon in all its messy glory, but it was truly the chicken fried steak that was the star that night at Hughie's.
This wasn't your traditional milanesa-style CFS, pounded thin before being battered and fried. Instead, the crispy batter encased a rugged piece of steak cooked to a rosy medium in its thickest part. The gravy on top wasn't the anemic cornstarch-white gravy found elsewhere but a creamy sausage gravy that looked as if it had come straight from a cast-iron skillet full of drippings. It was so perfect, I even momentarily set aside my predjudices about gravy being served on top of a chicken fried steak instead of on the side (where it belongs).
The CFS came with several different options for sides, including more traditional options such as mashed potaotes, cole slaw, and buttered corn. But after diving into an appetizer platter before our entrees came out—one covered with basil chicken wings, salt-and-pepper spare ribs, and beef-stuffed spring rolls—I was eager to try more of Hughie's Vietnamese food alongside the chicken fried steak. And so it happened: I got a shrimp-and-pork spring roll and garlic fried rice with my CFS—and it worked.
Some of my friends were less convinced when I posted the photo above on my Facebook wall with the caption, "Chicken fried steak with a side of spring roll and nuoc mam. Welcome to Houston." Aside from looking like one of the more horrific examples of Martha Stewart's infamous food photography thanks to dim light and a poor camera phone, the combination put a few people off too.
"Love both of those things," wrote my buddy Amanda McGraw, former chef at Brasserie 19. "But no."
Another friend was even more blunt. "Sorry. This isn't right," wrote Michael Coppens. "And if it's Houston, someone broke it."
The vast majority were less trepidatious, however, and more interested to know where they could get their own CFS and spring roll fix. Even McGraw admitted curiosity after I promised the CFS was pure magic: "That's near where I live," she wrote. "I'm going to have to check it out!" But there's more to Hughie's allure than just chicken fried steak.
In a recent post about Hughie's at the Houston Press, my colleague John Kiely described that allure succinctly: "When I first heard good things about Hughie's Tavern and Vietnamese Grill, it was the name that grabbed my attention," he wrote. "A Vietnamese eatery has jumped away from French words like restaurant, bistro and cafe, and mainstreamed into a tavern and grille." The concept has been so popular, reported Kiely, that owner Peter Hoang may have to expand soon.
Less than 40 years ago, there were fewer than 100 Vietnamese immigrants living in Houston; today we have the second-largest Vietnamese community in the nation. You have to speak in nearly hyperbolic terms when you describe the impact that a generation of Vietnamese-Americans have made on Houston's dining scene since they and their parents first arrived en masse in 1975 following the fall of Saigon, the way they quickly rewrote our city's list of favorite foods—pho, banh mi, cafe sua da—while embracing Texan foods as their own at the same time. Hughie's isn't the next chapter in this book; it's the sequel, and I can't wait to see how this one ends.