BECAUSE IT IS BIG—MORE than 4.6 million people—and because it is a port of entry, Houston draws immigrants from all over the world. They get off the plane, the boat, or the bus; they stagger into the city’s hot, humid, ozone-permeated embrace; and—fortunately for the rest of us—many of them open restaurants. That is why Houston is a buffet, a smorgasbord, a rijsttafel of international cuisines. I could have written about Argentine, Austrian, Belgian, Brazilian, Chinese, Colombian, Cuban, Ethiopian, French, German, Italian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Swiss, or Thai restaurants, to name the main ones. But in the interest of my sanity and my waistline, I decided to focus on three: Indian, Vietnamese, and Japanese, each category represented by at least two dozen establishments. (In case you’re curious, there are 67,000 Vietnamese in the Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area, 57,000 Indians, and 6,400 Japanese.) I was drawn to them in part because each has a distinctive culinary profile. When I walk into an Indian restaurant, I know I will find fragrant, spicy braised dishes and rich sauces; a Vietnamese cafe will have many variations on noodles with light, pungent sauces; Japanese cooking has made an art form of rice, raw and cooked fish, and earthy, vinegary seasonings. But in the end, I chose the three because I like them.
“The problems with most Indian restaurants,” Mickey Kapoor told me, “are the three O‘s—overspicing, overcooking, and overgreasing; everything comes out all porridgy.” The owner of Khyber North Indian Grill, who, with his shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses, is a dead ringer for Ben Kingsley, is at pains to see that his kitchen doesn’t commit porridge. The lamb curry, a multiflavored stew of wonderfully tender lamb, comes in a restrained caramelized-onion sauce flavored with tomato, ginger, and garlic. The black-lentil-and-red-bean combination is like a subtle version of red beans and rice; it raises the two main ingredients to heights seldom attained by legumes. The mood at night in the large brick-walled room is quite different from the get-’em-in, get-’em-out efficiency of the lunchtime buffet line; if you’re so inclined, you can linger over espresso and a bowl of phirni—rice pudding with almonds, pistachios, and coconut. Come to think of it, the phirni was quite porridgy, but in this case, that was perfect. 2510 Richmond Avenue, 713-942-9424.
If I were in search of vegetarian kosher food, it would never occur to me to look for it at an Indian restaurant. But here I was at Madras Pavilion—sitting next to a Hebrew study club at one table and a group of chattering sari-clad women at another—chowing down on mor kolumbu (vegetables in yogurt sauce) and an iddly (a steamed lentil-rice patty). Madras Pavilion is unusual among Indian restaurants in keeping a kosher kitchen, but you don’t have to be Jewish or vegetarian to appreciate its excellent lunchtime buffet at a bargain basement price of $6.99 on weekdays. If I had to pick 3 favorite dishes from the 25 or so that were available the day I was there, I would choose, first, vegetable kootu—a hot and saucy combination of eggplant and velvety yellow lentils seasoned with mustard seeds; next, the dosai, a crisp rice crêpe the size of a dinner plate that came folded over a warm potato salad studded with peas and carrots and forced me to violate the rule “Never eat anything bigger than your head”; and finally the irresistible rice vermicelli in milk and honey, another dessert that gives porridge a good name. 3910 Kirby Drive, 713-521-2617.
Maybe it’s Indika‘s intimate size, its warm, mango-colored walls, or its two arched doorways, but from the entrance the dining room looks like a painting. A welcoming place, the year-old restaurant is where some of the most interesting Indian food in Houston is being prepared. Owner-chef Anita Jaisinghani introduces small personal changes that lighten the traditional seasonings and cooking methods. Her saag paneer was amazing, the usual spinach mixed with fresh mustard greens and the homemade cheese, served on the side, spiked with cumin and black pepper. Patra-style snapper with Parsi-inspired flavorings, a summertime special, tasted unusual even though the ingredients in the sweetish caramelized-onion sauce—ginger, cilantro, mint, mustard oil, coconut, and multispice garam masala powder—are almost as common as salt in Indian kitchens. Even foie gras got Indianized with a side dish of sweet fig chutney, which was almost better than the seared goose liver itself. 12665 Memorial Drive, at Boheme, 713-984-1725; closed Sunday and Monday.
Kaneyama and Kubo’s, two of Houston’s best-known sushi restaurants, are both excellent, and I would be remiss not to mention them (if you go to Kaneyama, do not fail to have the sea urchin; fresh and almost sweet, it is not at all salty or fishy). But I happen to be obsessed with three others. Nara feels like a neighborhood spot, equipped with the so-called lucky cat statuettes beloved of Japanese restaurants and a sort of lava lamp with floating plastic fish. Even so, you need to make reservations if you want to be assured of a place at the sushi bar presided over by fish maestro Shoichi Ikeda. I like the unregimented feeling here; if it’s not too busy, you can ask for a special creation (several popular rolls on the menu were actually invented by customers). Shoi-san says his attitude is basically “What the hell—why not?” Over the course of a two-and-a-half-hour binge, my friend and I ate morsels of grilled freshwater eel in a sake-soy-honey glaze, a Nara beef roll (choose green onions rather than the listed avocado and sweet potato), poached flounder in ginger-Chardonnay butter sauce, and more kinds of raw fish than I can possibly enumerate. When all nine people at the counter started to debate the meaning of the Beatles song “Let It Be,” we knew we were having fun. 11124 Westheimer Road, near Wilcrest, 713-266-2255; closed Sunday.
The Fish (formerly Blowfish), on the other hand, is not for the contemplative soul—unless you go, as my friend and I did, at noon on the Fourth of July, when we were the only two customers in the entire place. Lucky us. We sat at the black marble bar that occupies one side of the dusky-red room and monopolized 24-year-old Vietnamese sushi chef Vu Le, who knocked himself out to oblige our requests. His hamachi (yellowtail)—small, pale-pink pyramids placed on a dark blue plate next to a volcano of shredded white radish—was a work of art. So was his Red Roll, two layers of dark red tuna (one peppered) that were topped with fresh avocado, then cut into squares and arranged like neatly overlapping sofa cushions. When we grew tired of fish, we had vegetable tempura, a welcome change of pace though it was greasier than I like. Was our experience a typical visit to the Fish? Absolutely not. Most nights it’s packed with pretty young thangs putting the moves on one another, but wait till another holiday comes along, and you can have it all to yourself. 309 Gray, 713-526-5294; closed Sunday.
My third choice, Azuma Sushi and Robata Grill, is a risk: It’s new, and things could change. But what a great beginning. First, note the visual distractions: vividly colored paper lanterns, bamboo chairs, a balcony, and outside, a little Japanese rock garden with a fountain. Then zero in on the edible distractions, including several that emerge from the robata, or Japanese fireside grill, set in the floor of its own room. The prawn robata consisted of four giant critters that were split, grilled, and doused with a great ginger sauce. The Azuma roll, a house specialty, was a three-part assemblage of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail that came surrounded by daikon sliced paper thin. And for soup fanatics, the kitchen prepared a wonderful version of miso: a robust, thick brown brew that was utterly different from the usual bland, blond broth. Keep your fingers crossed for Azuma. 5600 Kirby Drive, 713-432-9649.
How can I admit this? Of all the dishes I tried in a week of sampling, my favorite was a $4.25 bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. I ate it at Pho Danh, a spick-and-span quick-serve joint in the amazing and huge Hong Kong City Mall. The soup was everything I wanted in a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, plus it arrived about two minutes after I ordered it. I loved its simplicity—a bowl brimming with clear, flavorful beef broth, a tangle of rice noodles, and thin slices of round steak (other protein choices include brisket, meatball, and tripe). I customized it with fresh basil, bean sprouts, a green dandelion leaf, and a squeeze of Key lime juice. The people-watching was good too: Asian families with babies in strollers, Gap-clad teenage boys with cell phones attached to their ears, and girls wearing jeans so tight it was a miracle they could sit down, much less eat. Hong Kong City Mall, No. C-25 (at the Ocean Palace end), 11209 Bellaire Boulevard, 281-879-9940; no credit cards.
Sometimes, though, you want something a little more refined. Miss Saigon Café, a cozy storefront with a mural of a Saigon street scene painted on one wall, is foreign without being too exotic, accessible even to newbies. Who wouldn’t enjoy the “flambé steak cubes,” strips of wonderfully tender grilled steak with sautéed green onions, a garlic-and-clove butter sauce, and a shredded-carrot-and-ginger relish? Or the fried soft-shell crab with a tangy, intensely flavored plum sauce? I liked the gingery steamed snapper too, although the portion was microscopic; the meat-and-vegetable-filled Vietnamese crêpe, made of rice flour, lacked oomph. With walls painted a dark terra-cotta and lace-trimmed cafe curtains that reveal a lively street scene, Miss Saigon is just right for a first date. 5503 Kelvin Drive, 713-942-0108; closed Sunday.
Houston already has two big-deal Vietnamese restaurants: the main outpost of Kim Son, in whose vastness entire family reunions can vanish without a trace, and Vietopia, with its lazy synchronized fans and occidental-friendly menu. Here’s another entry in that genre: Ba Ky, a palatial dining room way out in the Asian reaches of Bellaire Boulevard. This is Trader Vic’s reimagined for the twenty-first century with a French Colonial look, tall bamboo columns, and acres of plastic tropical foliage. It’s a total trip. Of the three dishes that my Vietnamese friend ordered for us, I liked the roasted glazed duck and the chunky lemongrass chicken just fine, but the hot-and-sour soup was nothing short of spectacular—and nothing like its Chinese counterpart. A light, tamarind-infused broth, it was absolutely packed with fresh tomato, okra, pineapple, sprouts, cilantro, silver-taro stem (an Asian vegetable), and a plump catfish (minus the head and tail). We ate the broth and vegetables with spoons, and my friend showed me how to pick up pieces of fish with chopsticks, put them in my rice bowl, and shovel them into my mouth. For me, it was an exotic adventure. For her, it was like going home. 9938 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-777-8585.