From a distance, Texas seems like a union of barbecue and tacos, but up close, banh mi sandwiches, pho, and ginger-spiced crawfish shed light on a different community. For more than 40 years, Vietnamese Americans have been cultivating a new kind of cuisine in the Lone Star state.
The first wave of Vietnamese immigrants arrived in Texas in 1975 following the end of the Vietnam War. Saigon (known today as Ho Chi Minh City) was located in southeastern Vietnam and was the most populous city in the entire country. After the Vietnam War, the bustling metropolis fell under control of North Vietnam, causing many to flee the country. A portion of those people landed in Texas.
Houston’s warm climate and proximity to fishable waters were appealing to the pioneering first-wave refugees, who consisted mostly of upper-class professionals, politicians, and high-ranking military officers. The second wave of immigrants came between the late 1970s and early 1980s and was made up of less affluent citizens, while a third wave comprised of political prisoners released by the Vietnamese government arrived in the late 1980s. Today, more than 210,000 Vietnamese Americans live in Texas, a number that is only surpassed by California. More than 100,000 of those live in the greater Houston area, making Vietnamese cuisine a focal point in the energetic city.
Perched upon Houston’s main drag, Bellaire Boulevard, a community called Little Saigon is home to a large number of the city’s Vietnamese-owned businesses and restaurants. There are plenty of other Vietnamese food options intermingled throughout the city, but this is the uncontested hub for authentic classics like banh mi sandwiches (sliced baguettes filled with savory marinated meat, cucumber, herbs, and pickled vegetables) and pho (a rich soup filled with meat, rice noodles, and fragrant herbs). There are also lesser known but equally delicious dishes like bun cha Hanoi (pork patties served with vermicelli noodles, lettuce, and herbs) and bo bay mon (a seven-course communal beef meal). One would be remiss to exclude boiled crawfish—a dish often considered Cajun in nature, but done up Vietnamese-style with herbs, butter, ginger, and plenty of garlic.
In Texas, the Vietnamese culture has been woven into the fabric of the state’s very being, and there’s no place where that is more evident than the food scene. Next time you commune over bowls of pho or banh mi sandwiches, eat with appreciation for the hard-working people who brought their culture to the table.