In 1973, Ninfa's opened on Navigation Boulevard and made a name with its fajitas. Nine years later, just minutes away, Vietnamese food finally began to gain traction beneath the wudian roof of Kim Son. Today, there are few things more Houstonian than fajitas and Vietnamese food. And Kim Son's signature dish is a combination of the two. It's now almost 35 years old, but if you haven't yet, meet the Vietnamese fajita.
In many ways, Kim Son reminded me powerfully of Saugus, Mass. Chinese kitsch palace Kowloon. The roof and decoration, as well as the presence of General Tso's, orange and sesame chicken place the Houston restaurant almost as much in the category of American Chinese as Vietnamese—if not for the presence of a few dishes like Mekong catfish soup and the lack of an upstairs comedy club, Kim Son could almost be Kowloon. But this is Houston, not the Boston 'burbs and so we have Vietnamese fajitas.
Diners who have tried the bo 7 mon at Saigon Pagolac or Jasmine Asian Cuisine will recognize the roll-your-own rice paper concept. But while the sizzling platters at those Chinatown restaurants contain little more than thinly sliced beef, Vietnamese fajitas naturally share space with onions and green peppers. Also, in my case last night, the platter was not sizzling. The dish comes with a side plate of lettuce, carrots, herbs, cucumber and pineapple (I was surprised by the absence of spring roll staple, vermicelli), all ready to be wrapped in rice paper. My attempt to sear my pineapple was thwarted by a just-lukewarm comal. But I can't argue with the fun of rolling the meat and veggies in rice paper, or the pleasant lemongrass marinade of the occasionally tough Angus beef.
My server was a little surprised that my dining partner and I knew what to do. He said most people (clearly meaning most non-Vietnamese) assume the bowl of warm water provided for moistening the rice paper is a finger bowl and start rinsing their hands. He was also incredulous when I ordered the ca kho to, or catfish cooked in a clay pot. "Do you really want that?" he asked more than once. It was only after I'd assured him that I'd eaten the dish elsewhere before that he relented. Apparently, it tends not to be popular among the white folk.
Like the fajitas, the heated bowl was not sizzling. That meant that the delightful caramelization that usually typifies the dish never happened. But I still enjoyed the spicy-sweet fish more than I expected to. And that's the secret to Kim Son's enduring success: it may not be the best Vietnamese spot in Houston, but it's hard not to like the disarming fun of dining there, in all its Epcot World Showcase glory.