First Bite

Top Chefs Look to Elevate Vietnamese Cooking at Xin Chao

Get an inside look at the new restaurant from Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen.

By Timothy Malcolm September 30, 2020

Braised pork with crispy rice at Xin Chào.

The dish thit kho is essentially caramelized pork with egg, a delicacy in Southern Vietnam that's eaten frequently during Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the new year. The pork is braised in fish sauce and nearly hard-boiled eggs for a lavish bit of richness. 

Back in 2012, Houston native Christine Ha presented the dish with rice, kale, and maitake mushrooms in the season-three finale of MasterChef, which she won. Back then the rice was topped by pork belly and a fried egg on a white plate, resembling an easy midday dinner. The show's creator, host, and lead judge Gordon Ramsay criticized her plating of the dish.

"It's got ... the classic Vietnamese background, you can see that," said Ramsay, calling it "rustic." "But we're not in Vietnam, and we're not at home. You're in the final of MasterChef."

At Xin Chào, the collaboration between Saigon House chef-owner Tony Nguyen, The Blind Goat chef Christine Ha, and Ha's husband, businessman John Suh, the thit kho comes in a piping-hot stone bowl, a nod to Suh's Korean heritage. The rice is still cooking and chirping while nestled underneath the pork, some pickled mustard greens, and a beige egg that, when opened, emits a glorious stream of fatty yolk. Sure, it's a cuter and more organized presentation of the ingredients than the MasterChef version, but more than anything, it's an authoritative plating. Oh, and it's delicious.

"I still like rustic plating; I like things to be organic when I present things. I don't want everything to look picture perfect," says Ha. "Where I've grown is probably to be more confident about what I put on a plate, realizing that you're not going to please everybody with what you make. But knowing it's the best product you can put out there—that's all you can do."

Ha's first concept, The Blind Goat, immediately proved she should be noticed as one of the city's top chefs. Nguyen is a star in his own right, with his popular Saigon House energizing crawfish lovers. At Xin Chào, located at the former Decatur Bar & Pop-Up Factory spot at 2310 Decatur St, Ha and Nguyen seem to be highly confident in their work, bringing their influences and experiences together and into every dish, elevating Vietnamese cuisine in the process.

That delicious braised pork and crispy rice is one example. In another, Vietnamese and the American South collide with entrées like lemongrass buttermilk fried chicken with pandan rice, pickled cucumber, beef tallow aioli, and hot sate honey. It's titled (apparently by Ha) Nguyen-er Nguyen-er Chicken Dinner.

"Fried chicken is one of my and Tony's favorite foods," says Ha. "So that's a result of having conversations back and forth about What can we do better with the dishes that we love?"

Smoked duck salad with jackfruit, cabbage, arugula, walnuts, and ginger-fish sauce vinaigrette.

Throughout the menu Ha and Nguyen employ that same thought process on established Vietnamese dishes. An entrée of whole smoked beef rib is served with pan-fried rice noodles and vegetables like shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and Chinese broccoli. For a bo luc lac (shaking beef) entrée, the kitchen uses R-C Ranch wagyu chuck eye. Starters include a charcuterie and cheese plate with black-garlic-infused chicken pâté and a take on Laughing Cow cheese, using goat cheese and hot sate honey. For another starter, Ha and Nguyen combined their mothers' egg roll recipes—there's pork, shrimp, and crab stuffed inside each perfectly rolled bite.

It's egg rolls that actually put these two chefs together. Nguyen introduced himself to Ha and Suh about a month after The Blind Goat opened, quickly offering to show up the next day to help them prep the restaurant.

"I'm like, 'I'm not gonna ask you to do that, it's crazy.' So I said, 'Don't worry about it,'" says Ha. But at 7:30 a.m. the next day, Nguyen was at Bravery Chef Hall helping them finish egg rolls. He came back the next day, which led to the couple taking Nguyen out to dinner and started conversations about what Vietnamese food could look like in Houston today. Not long after that, the chefs decided to team up, and once the former Decatur space opened up, they decided to jump together and make Xin Chào happen.

Xin Chào is accepting reservations for its socially distanced dining room designed by Hung Cao, which employs warm wood tones, and showcases both a mural by artist Caroline Truong and paintings collected over the years by Ha's father. A sliding glass panel (part of the old Decatur setup) opens to a semi-private dining space. The patio is open, too, and is taking walkup traffic. 

The restaurant also has a full bar program, created by general manager Christopher Nguyen with the help of beverage consultant Linda Salinas. Classics are tweaked in cocktails like the MoVIETo (mojito with lemongrass and Thai basil) and the Saigon Old Fashioned (tamarind and black walnut bitters with Maker's Mark), and patio dwellers will be happy to see a couple of frozen drinks on the menu as well.

For now, Nguyen is leading the kitchen as Ha oversees operations and acts as the public face of the restaurant. It's a setup that works since Ha, whose neurological condition—neuromyelitis optica, which has left her legally blind—has compromised her immune system, has been keeping away from busy spaces like restaurant kitchens since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I do miss it. I want to be back there, but at the same time, he's doing a great job with the back of the house," says Ha. "I let Tony do his thing, and we'll make some tweaks on the fly." 

Ha says don't be surprised to see the team bring Nguyen's crawfish boil skills to the restaurant, maybe on Monday nights. That's down the road; for now, brunch and lunch are soon to come.

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