Food Fight: Battle Bo Luc Lac
|Photos by Katharine Shilcutt|
Bo luc lac -- also known as Vietnamese shaking beef -- is a traditional favorite and a meat lover's kind of dish. Considering the fact that the ingredients are so simple and so very Western, in fact, we're surprised that the garlic-tinged sauteed beef hasn't caught on more wildly here in the Lone Star State. When cooked properly, the sirloin, grilled bell peppers, grilled onions and jalapeños all come together in a savory and slightly spicy medley of pure meat heaven that speaks to the heart of a Texan despite its Vietnamese origin. Hell, you could even cook this in a cowboy campfire.
Ordering this dish in a restaurant can be a crap shoot, though. Some places will overcook the sirloin cubes, which should ideally be medium rare when they hit your table. Others will overdo the garlic or the jalapeno, while other plates of bo luc lac have barely any flavor at all. It's sometimes the simplest dishes that are the most difficult to execute.
For this week's Food Fight, we matched up bo luc lac dishes from two of downtown's most revered Vietnamese restaurants: Mai's and Huynh. But just because a restaurant is well-loved doesn't mean it's still turning out great food after all these years. Nostalgia and comfort can hide a multitude of sins in the kitchen...
Huynh, 912 St. Emanuel
People say that Old Chinatown is dead. They've even given it a new name: EaDo, short for East of Downtown. While we steadfastly refuse to call it that, Huynh is doing its part to show the world that Old Chinatown still exists. The Vietnamese restaurant is "new" as far as restaurants go over here, but it's already made huge waves in the dining scene, being praised for offering some of the best and most authentic Vietnamese food in town along with something very unusual: great service.
If you're having a hard time locating it, the bo luc lac at Huynh is listed rather oddly under the com dia section of the menu. Okay. As it's traditionally served with rice, we suppose this is fine, albeit strange. But that's just about the only obstacle you'll run into here. The bo luc lac is stellar, amazing, out of this world. There aren't enough adjectives to describe how soft and pillowy the meat is, how the marinade of garlic, oyster and fish sauce form a tangy crust that gives a sharp bite to the medium rare meat, how the beef seems to melt right onto your tongue, barely requiring any chewing.
Throughout the (admittedly short) meal -- as we gobbled it down quite quickly and indecently -- we turned to our poor dining partner with every bite of meat, exclaiming rudely "I'M SO SORRY YOU DON'T EAT MEAT, BECAUSE THIS IS RIDICULOUS." And we were, in fact, secretly glad that he doesn't eat meat, because that meant we didn't have to share. The lime-pepper dipping sauce that was brought to the table didn't even meet a single cube of beef, as it was totally unnecessary. If this wasn't the best bo luc lac in Houston, we don't know where else it could be.
Mai's, 3403 Milam
After the ravenous feast the night before, it seemed almost pitiful to have to put any other restaurant up against Huynh. But at the same time, it was fitting to pit Mai's -- the old stalwart of the downtown/midtown Vietnamese scene -- against a newcomer. We have never personally understood the appeal of Mai's. The pho isn't good. The service is bad. Even the parking is a pain in the ass. Yet people continue to flock here as if Mai's kitchen contained all the secrets to the universe. Perhaps it's the late hours? Who knows.
Despite our misgivings, the plate of bo luc lac that arrived in front of us looked promising. For one, it was enormous (especially considering we ordered a "small"). And the beef cubes glistened tantalizingly atop mounds of sauteed veggies. It looked very good, and we tore into it with abandon. Our mistake.
The cubes of sirloin were so chewy that we sat there gnawing and endlessly masticating each bite as if we were preparing cud for a trip through multiple stomachs. Our dining companion, The Shameless Chef, even poked listlessly at our beef cubes and commented on how tough and sinewy they were. And this man eats meals made entirely of ramen and Doritos. At one point, in spite of a full minute of chewing, the piece of beef we swallowed got stuck in our esophagus and we painfully waited it out as the peristalsis finally worked the bedeviled thing down. The flavor of the beef wasn't bad -- too spicy for bo luc lac, owing to the many jalapeños -- but with meat that inedible, who cares?
As if there were a question. Huynh. Not only for having meat we could actually chew and digest properly, but for having probably the best bo luc lac in town.