100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 14, Caramelized Pork Spare Ribs at Cafe TH
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg Tender, sweet caramelized pork is a special dish at Cafe TH.
"I've been saving that for the Anvil guys," chef Minh Nguyen of Cafe TH told me when I asked him for more details about the hauntingly delicious caramelized pork dish he'd served me earlier that day. Generally, I stick to bánh mì or pho at Vietnamese restaurants, but when I let Nguyen choose lunch for me, the results were even better.
"I don't always have it," Nguyen continued, resisting after I told him I wanted to write about the off-menu item. "I have it for dinners, and I do eat it often enough for me and my staff to have enough for additional people, I guess..."
Sorry, Anvil fellas. Cat's out of the bag. Cafe TH has an amazing caramelized pork spare rib platter with baby bok choy and jasmine rice, and I think everyone needs to try it.
I'm not typically a spare rib kind of person for the same reason I'm not typically a chicken wing kind of person. I like my bones gone, thank you very much. I don't like the idea of gnawing on bones, tearing sinewy layers away with my teeth. But something about these spare ribs featuring chopped bone-in pork works for me.
Even the bones have great flavor.
It's been simmered in a pan with sugar until the coating on the pork is like candy. Picking up a small hunk of meat with the bone in the center and sucking and chewing on it until the meat falls off reminded me of eating hard candy. It's sticky and sweet, and ever-so-juicy, with just a hint of spice from chile powder in the sauce.
Nguyen was cagey when I asked him for more details about the marinade on the meat, but I can tell there's garlic in there, and on top are fresh green onions, fried shallots and sautéed red bell peppers, which add some acidity to a sweet dish. Served with the pork are juicy sautéed baby bok choy and sticky jasmine rice topped with meaty portobello mushrooms.
In all, there's a lot going on on this one plate, but the spicy, sweet and bitter flavors play well off of one another. And even without the sides of bok choy and rice, it would be a winning platter of food because that pork is just so juicy and dynamic. It's almost like bite-size candied bacon, only softer and meatier.
This delectable and satisfying dish isn't always on the menu at Cafe TH, but Nguyen is very good about updating the restaurant's Facebook page to let diners know what he'll be serving for specials. If you can get your hands on some sticky sweet pork, you won't regret it.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.