The first thing I noticed about Café Hélène, the newest Vietnamese restaurant to crop up in Midtown, is how unlike Cali Sandwich it is. Café Hélène is strikingly modern, with clean lines that echo the general cleanliness of the brand-new restaurant. An employee greeted me immediately, handing me a menu and explaining the ordering process with a giant grin. Once seated in the airy dining room, I could see Cali Sandwich from inside Café Hélène, thanks to plate glass windows that afford a broad and sunny view across Main Street, where the old Vietnamese sandwich shop squatted resolutely in the distance. I love Cali Sandwich and have been a loyal patron for years, but even this loyal patron will note its general grubbiness and grim service with a resigned sigh.
3101 Main St.
For ages, this is how it's been in Midtown Vietnamese joints. Kim Tai trundles along inside a converted diner off McGowen, where the owners haven't removed previous signage advertising snow cones and burgers despite its long years as a Vietnamese cafe. Pho Saigon herds its patrons through the busy, fluorescent-lit restaurant like cattle to the slaughter. Then along came the brand-new Mai's, lovingly rebuilt after a kitchen fire gutted the restaurant in 2010. A year later, the restored Vietnamese restaurant had shed its old, grimy image and reopened as a chic spot equipped with a full bar, attracting more customers than ever before. Other spots soon followed.
The tastefully decorated Red Pier opened around the same time as the reinvigorated Mai's, challenging its late-night hours on the weekends with better food despite its smaller footprint. The cute and cheerful Simply Pho replaced the dingy and dreary Pho Nga in early 2013. Venerated sandwich shop Thien An closed its old location in 2012 and reopened earlier this month in an expanded new spot on San Jacinto. And now Café Hélène has stepped in to take Midtown's Vietnamese game to a whole new level.
Owner Hélène Le is originally from Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon), then left her home country to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. Now in her 60s and with grown children, Le has achieved her dream of opening a restaurant that combines her Vietnamese upbringing with her French training. While this isn't a huge stretch, considering the extensive influence French cuisine had on Vietnamese cooking while the country was occupied by France during the turn of the century, Le has fleshed out this symbiosis even futher by adding solidly French dishes to an otherwise standard Vietnamese menu.
Among these dishes are vichyssoise (a chilled, creamy potato-leek soup), Niçoise salad, and quiche lorraine. I also spotted a sardine banh mi among the offerings—which also include bun and pho—which I don't find often enough in Houston. The French and the Vietnamese both love their sardines (indeed, the French are credited with tinning the first sardines) and the canned fish in a spicy tomato sauce bring a wholly different flavor to the traditional sandwich: light, briny, deliciously oily, and with a sweet pop of heat.
My sardine banh mi was accompanied by a cream of zucchini soup, another of Le's daily offerings. It had the fine, fluffy texture of a velouté and a vibrant green hue. The combo—along with iced tea that came with free refills—cost a mere $8.50. I threw in an appetizer sampler for an additional $4.95, which netted me three juicy meatballs on a skewer, two egg rolls, and a shrimp and tofu spring roll.
While Le worked in the kitchen, her daughter Laura worked the front of the house, taking orders at the cash register, bussing tables, and running food for her mother. "This place is packed at lunch for two solid hours," she reported. Although Café Hélène has only been open six weeks, the word is out. And although my visit was well past the lunch rush, a steady stream of customers still kept Laura and her mother busy even close to 3 p.m. They're surely encouraged by the renovated building (which previously housed the decrepit Saigon Cafe #2) and welcoming exterior, complete with cute patio decked out with cherry red chairs.
"We started renovating last summer," said Laura of the once downtrodden space. A family friend helped them decorate the restaurant in shades of deep coral and turquoise, while another family friend offered to bake the French pastries and cakes that are for sale next to the register—including a rich slice of moist chocolate cake that I quickly devoured. "When it's homemade, you can taste a difference," said Laura. "That's what's important to us."
Despite the neighborhood's long history with Vietnamese restaurants—or perhaps because so many of those restaurants were so daunting to Anglo customers for so long—Laura said she's still encountering customers who've never experienced Vietnamese food before. "Some customers have asked us if we have teriyaki on the menu," she giggled. She's hoping Café Hélène—with its wi-fi, its sleek decor, and its wine and beer selection—will be a modern standard-bearer for Vietnamese cuisine while showcasing her mother's cooking for an appreciative new audience.
"One customer came in and only ordered egg rolls for the first three days," said Laura. "Finally, on the fourth day, he asked for a 'safe' option. I gave him chicken pho. He loved it!"