Oh Hai!

Hai Duong Asian CuisineWith Duc Chuong II, I noted that in the two years I’ve worked in the area, there’s been quite a bit of turnover in the Hung Dong Market Center. (I’ll allow you exactly one “giggity” – but no more.) In the same period of time, Hai Duong is actually the third incarnation of the space in this strip center at 13433 State Hwy 249. Back in January of 2010, it was called Cuu Long, and served an impressive array of both Chinese and Vietnamese fare. At lunch, they seemed to focus on the $5 combo specials you would find at a typical Chinese place, however, since the name and the majority of the menu were Vietnamese, I preferred to order pho, bun, and com dishes. By May, it had become Seng Hoat Asian Cuisine, which seemed to focus more on Chinese and pan-Asian fare rather than Vietnamese. They had spruced the place up a bit with fresh paint and new decor, but the layout hadn’t changed at all, so I figured this had been a simple name change. Seng Hoat didn’t last long either though, and the space lay dormant for nearly a year until Hai Duong took over at the end of last year.

Hai Duong has more in common with the Cuu Long period than the Seng Hoat interregnum. They again have the Chinese lunch combos, but the specials on the whiteboard at the entrance and the extensive dinner menu, consisting of 148 items, are Vietnamese. The modern decor of Seng Hoat has been retained though improved upon, while the staff has completely changed over. Waiters busy themselves about the decent-sized lunch crowd, while young, chic Vietnamese proprietors hold watch. My first few times in, I set the small Chinese lunch menu aside and went for the familiar Vietnamese standards, like the pho, bun, and com dishes I ordered at previous iterations of this restaurant, and ones you’ll find just about anywhere, which make them a good barometer. The broth for the beef pho (tai, gau – steak and flank) is rich and complex with anise and coriander seasonings, with fresh greens like basil and cilantro served on the side. But the sheer ubiquity of these dishes in Houston, especially along this 249 corridor, raises the bar for a restaurant to stand out. The Com Thit Nuong was the only one that really impressed me, with its savory chargrilled pork, slightly sweet from the caramelized marinade, on a traditional bed of “broken” rice, topped with a fried egg, and served with Vietnamese quiche on the side. A hearty meal that left me craving more.

Muc Rang MuoiBut with such an extensive menu, my orders had to start going further afield, if only out of curiosity. More isn’t always more when it comes to menus, and some restaurants have even gone so far as to pare down to a single item, sometimes with variations on that theme, sometimes not. At Duc Chuong II just a couple of doors down, the only choice you have is what drink to order with your bun bo Hue. This is not uncommon at Vietnamese places, where the idea is that you do one thing and you do it well. After trying the more common offerings on previous visits to Hai Duong, I idly performed a mental exercise to make an argument from the other direction for the rest of the dishes on their expansive menu. Perhaps, I thought, the highest volume orders become like a single-dish restaurant, where items run the risk of becoming rote preparations on an assembly line. Maybe if I order something a few pages into the menu, that’ll throw them off their game and make them devote time and attention to that single order. I haven’t observed the kitchen, so I don’t know what exactly is responsible, but the hand-battered, pan-fried squid called Muc Rang Muoi was some of the best damn squid I’ve ever had. I hesitate to call it calamari, even though that seems to have become a blanket term, because this goes well beyond the small, fried cephalopods you get as a Mediterranean appetizer. This is emphatically squid, with large, perfectly supple morsels coated in a salt and pepper-seasoned batter that doesn’t flake off, but also doesn’t overwhelm the squid. Served on a bed of lightly sautéed vegetables, the savory bites are played beautifully against the mild sweetness of the browned scallions, onions, red and green peppers – aesthestically too, against their color.

The squid are served with a pot of rice on the side, along with a little dish of the traditional Vietnamese accompaniment of salt and pepper with lime. Squeeze the lime to make a little dip, and these squid are just out of this world. Once having tried them, I dug further into the menu until I found Luoi Vit Rang Muoi, a similarly prepared duck tongue. I was eager to order this, and still am, half because of my own compulsion to eat a wide array of dishes. I think it helps create a steel stomach. I ate bugs in China for that very reason. In any event, the kindly waiter advised me that the dish was more appropriate for long, casual, beer-drinking lunches, which really only made the prospect more compelling, but he was right, probably not appropriate for a work day. As if Hai Duong needed another reason to lure me back.

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