Kau Ba Saigon in Montrose got even better during the pandemic


Curious to see what the ever-inventive Nikki Tran would do with a lobster banh mi, at the request of a friend, I dined at her restaurant for the first time since the pandemic hit. The very idea of ​​the dish made me smile, from the advertised nuoc mam butter, to the promise of homemade patty nestled in the French bread, to the cheek of luxuriating in this daily Houston staple.

Chef Tran has never lacked audacity. Or charm either. Her Kau Ba Saigon offers a transporting patio on its shady corner in Montrose, swirling with a floral mural, bright coated wire chairs and a wooden trellis overhang from which a regiment of old-fashioned metal fans hang .

Squint and you could be somewhere else entirely, an effect I appreciate more the less I travel. It’s not the hustle and bustle of Saigon, where Tran first made waves with his Cajun-influenced Vietnamese cuisine. But sitting here with a golden cocktail at sunset, I could have been in a neighborhood of Roma, Brooklyn or Buenos Aires in Mexico City.

This gin cocktail was my first clue that things had happened here since my last visit in person. It wasn’t quite the restaurant I remembered. Picking up some takeout food, I didn’t realize that Kau Ba Saigon’s bar had upgraded to meet Tran’s food.

2502 Dunlavy, 713-497-5300

Lately, they offer provocative, well-made cocktails and a refreshing and affordable wine list, including welcome choices by the glass.

These upgrades can be credited to beverage director Chris Morris, a cocktail competition veteran who is also a sommelier. I first met him at the late Hunky Dory’s bar, and I’m in awe of the excitement he added to Kau Ba.

Morris has a deft touch with complex flavors that made my Flora the Explorer cocktail interesting down to the last drop. Its Hendricks gin base gets its sunny glow from Manzanilla sherry; then herbaceous (Thai basil), vegetal (bitter celery) and floral (bitter lavender and Austin honeysuckle liqueur) flavors were balanced.

It made me curious to see what Morris and his team do with their jackfruit infused rye, lemongrass infusions, “crayfish aromatics” and a cocktail that involves chartreuse, pandan, ube and egg white, among other things. A dinner here was always fun for me; but now it feels like an opportunity i want to share with my toughest friends.

My meal was just as captivating as this cocktail. Chef Tran came up with a salad of cold mussels that rose to the top of the list of “best dishes of the year” that I keep compiling in my head.

The brine-poached shellfish had been neatly halved, for easier consumption, and their Thai chili marinade was a rollercoaster of acidity and heat shot through with an intoxicating bloom of lemongrass. The lemongrass stalks were quite young and had been sliced ​​thin enough to be completely edible, a rare treat. I also ate every last piece of green papaya, a sliver of red onion and a sliver of mint leaf.

Then I marveled that for seven dollars I had just eaten a brilliant dish in a real appetizer portion. It was not a “small plate” or junior entree with a side note.

The cold mussel salad really set the stage for the calmer and richer lobster banh mi. They call it a “mini” banh mi, and it’s a nice half French baguette sandwich with an airy, cracked crust slid in with a soft homemade pâté inside, and filled with carefully poached pieces of lobster. The shellfish are bathed in butter that has been made savory with nuoc mam, the Vietnamese fish sauce dip, then drizzled with a crunch of fried garlic and onion.

That works. Especially with a nice glass of Macon to accompany, which made this Franco-Vietnamese-New England hybrid feel like an inspired blend of worlds.

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