The gig I have held the longest was as an after-school caregiver, and a habit I kept alongside that job was eating bò né in the mornings. Weekday trips to my local Vietnamese cafe, tucked just behind Lee’s Sandwiches, steeled me for whatever the day decided to throw in my face.
My local spot was called Bò Né Houston. It sat between a video arcade and an airy crawfish spot (although the matron quickly let you know that she, too, sold crawfish). I’d order the same thing — regular bò né, with an iced coffee — as the morning diners setting the shop’s circadian rhythms gradually made their way through the double doors, quietly tucking into their seats.
Recipe: Bò Né (Steak and Eggs)
As the years passed, plenty of things changed, but Bò Né Houston remained. I continually made excuses to find my way back. Even if I didn’t need to drive all the way down Bellaire for daikon, I did anyway. Maybe I was flying out of town for a few months, but I wanted butter and pâté in the freezer when I got home. It would need only a warm Vietnamese baguette for immediate bliss.
Bò né translates to “dodging beef,” and it’s a dish emblematic of Vietnamese cuisine’s expansiveness. Marinated meat is cooked in a special cast-iron pan alongside fried eggs and served with herbs, baguette, pâté and butter. It’s usually served for breakfast, alongside a salad and an assortment of condiments, but there are as many ways to partake in bò né as there are diners to order it. You could work through each component individually, or you could let the egg yolk seep toward your beef while you sop up everything with your bread. Or if you’re anything like me, you could opt for a sort of sandwich, combining every ingredient at hand, lodging them into your bread and washing it all down with iced coffee afterward (an A-1 experience).
If you’d like a morning of decadence, you can prep a spread just for yourself. If you’re opting for deliciousness, why not lean all the way in?
This affinity for bò né goes a long way for me. When I’m away from Houston, the dish is one of the first things I’ll look for. And so I’ve had variations in Denmark (on a glossy patio, while Clairo played overhead) and Alabama (at an otherwise-abandoned strip mall across from a Walmart) and, for a few months one year, at a tiny enclave in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighborhood (where an obliging chef served it whenever I passed through).
But if you’re in Space City, there are myriad bò né opportunities. This wasn’t always the case — in the early 1970s, there were a little more than a hundred Vietnamese folks in Houston. After the federal government relocated Vietnamese refugees around the United States, Houston had an influx of thousands of people. The city’s economy was growing, and the climate was warm, making it an attractive place to relocate. By the 1980s, Houston’s Vietnamese population was second stateside only to the greater Los Angeles area. And well into the early 2000s, this population continued to grow, much of it concentrated on the city’s southwest side.
But anywhere in the region, you’re likely to find a Vietnamese cafe or diner or coffee shop. Which means you’re just as likely to find a spot for bò né. In the years when I bounced across the city, I’d try iteration after iteration in whatever neighborhood was most local. When I lived in Bellaire, I alternated among my usuals. When I stayed closer to the Heights, my usual was Nam Eatery. A little closer to Westheimer Road, I’d opt for Yummy Pho and Bò Né 2, unless I was visiting friends further out west, when I’d turn to the Katy Asian Town supermarket. And if I’m also picking up coffee for my boyfriend in Saigon-Houston Plaza, I’ll pass through My Baguettes, next to a chiropractor and just a stone’s throw from a beignet shop.
The diversity of these locales — and their preferences, crowds and ambiences — are united by the precision and complexity presented inside what on its face is a pretty simple dish: steak and eggs and bread and veggies. It’s nearly impossible to go wrong. But when you’re making bò né at home, it’s worth taking the time to marinate the meat, and also to find the Vietnamese bakery in your area. It’s a dish that’s a dream to wake up to, and an easy one to make for a crowd. Cooking on a hot plate is ideal, but whatever pan you have on hand will work; depending on your situation, you can bring it straight to the table filled with meat and eggs, with another spot cleared for your salad, allowing everyone to reach in and take what they need. Or, if you’d like a morning of decadence, you can prep a spread just for yourself. If you’re opting for deliciousness, why not lean all the way in?
Lately, when I’m in town, my usual spot remains Bò Né Houston. Except it recently moved locations: Now nestled beside a grocery store and a handful of boba shops, it’s stationed on the far end of Bellaire Boulevard, past Hong Kong City Mall and the clusters of payday-loan shops and assorted clumps of city traffic. If you drive a little farther, commerce begins to fade, and the neighborhoods trail on and on, opening you up to the city’s sprawl. Sometimes, I think this restaurant is one of the things keeping me around town. The space is warm and inviting, allowing the mornings to accumulate toward years, until the one thing that hasn’t changed is the deliciousness conjured on its stoves. And the staff still reminds me to set my pâté in the fridge after a few days, except I’ll probably be back shortly because I’ve finished it all.