When In Roam

Carl Chu's Food & Travel Blog

Friday, August 03, 2007

Banh Mi: Les Givral Cafe, Houston

Like so many downtowns around the country, central Houston is undergoing a profound metamorphosis. Blocks of old derelict buildings are being razed to make way for posh new condos. While this is nice for making the neighborhoods livable again, inevitably a lot of local history and color are lost in the process.

Houston’s Vietnamtown is one of those places fading to the force of gentrification. Settled in the late 1970s by refugees from the Vietnam War, this area in the southwest corner of downtown Houston was the second chance to life for thousands of immigrants. But over the years, the Vietnamese gradually moved out, particularly to a gleaming new “Little Saigon” on Bellaire Boulevard at the western edge of the city. Soon, Vietnamtown became a vestige of its former self.

One of the symbols of Vietnamtown’s heyday is a sandwich shop called Les Givral Café, on Midvale Avenue. Recently relocated and renovated, it sparkles with a bright and cheery attitude that stands in contrast to the other businesses that have grown old and tired. Yet, the Vietnamese sandwiches, banh mi, are as good as ever.

Banh mi actually refers to the sandwich bread itself. It is an imitation of the French baguette, made with rice and wheat flours (an illegal combination for baguettes in France). They help create a lighter dough and softer texture, with a crust that is as crunchy as rice crackers. Into the banh mi goes any assortment of meats, vegetables, and even tofu. On top, the usual garnish includes chilies, cilantro, pickled carrots, and sliced cucumbers. Together, the sandwich forms a full meal by melding an entrée with a salad into one compact package—a true street food.

I ordered a shredded chicken banh mi—grilled white meat pulled by hand, and given a shake of ground black pepper. The contrasts of the flavors and textures were delightful, but certainly surprising given that it is such a simple sandwich. The crunchiness of the crust is balanced by the softness of the dough. The warmth of the meat is matched by the coolness of the vegetables. And the freshness of the cilantro is perked by the spiciness of the chilies.

Today, yuppies are moving into Vietnamtown. Les Givral is looking less like an ethnic place and more like a cozy neighborhood hangout. People even come in with their laptops to surf the web on their laptops while chowing down a banh mi. This does not mean, however, that Les Givral has compromised the food in order to satisfy American tastes. On the contrary, its popularity with the younger generation may be the true legacy of Vietnamtown, outlasting the Vietnamese themselves.

Labels: , ,