Photo by Kristen Gilliam Photography.
Nikki Tran is behind the counter at Kau Ba Kitchen, her restaurant in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, with Chris Shepherd. The two chefs greet one another with an exuberant bear hug before getting down to making gumbo that isn’t quite gumbo and banh mi that isn’t quite banh mi. The former is a sweet-and-sour number with bits of pineapple and seafood bobbing in a soy-spiked broth, while the latter contains an acid-green emulsion of arugula and gala apple in lieu of pork pâté. It’s a meeting of the city’s old and new guard, as well as collaboration between old friends. Shepherd is a James Beard Award–winner and one of the biggest names in town, while Tran is a newcomer whose star is on the rise.
“I’ve always done my own thing,” says Tran. Back in her hometown of Saigon (also called Ho Chi Minh City), her maverick approach has already made Tran something of a household name. At the three branches of her restaurant Ca Ba Quan, she has a reputation for bending the rules of traditional Vietnamese cuisine and incorporating international influences where she sees fit. One such innovation—her take on the now-classic Viet-Cajun crawfish boil—inadvertently landed her in the global spotlight.Houston’s Vietnamese community has been making its own riff on Cajun crawfish for years by simmering the freshwater crustaceans in minimally seasoned water, then dousing them in garlic butter. Though the combination might be considered heretical in New Orleans, Texans quickly took to the Southeast Asian spin on the dish, to the point where Shepherd says, “It is the most delightful thing on the face of the planet. Now, I can’t go eat Louisiana-style crawfish.” Tran gambled that Vietnamese people would feel the same way. Her version of the Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish boil, made using fresh Vietnamese river prawns, earned her cameos on Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil and David Chang’s Ugly Delicious.Given Ca Ba Quan’s’s humble beginnings, Tran was as surprised as anyone when big-name international chefs started showing up at her door. She still remembers the day she opened up roughly five years ago. “The grand opening day, the chef didn’t show up. At 8 AM, there were a bunch of people there and nobody to run the kitchen.” Tran says. Although Tran never received any formal culinary training, she stepped up and improvised her way through dinner service. “I never learned how to make traditional Vietnamese food, so I thought I would do something different—that way nobody could say if it was right or wrong.”
As days turned to weeks, she began to refine her cooking style through trial and error. But rather than immerse herself in the techniques of traditional Vietnamese food, she kept doing things her own way. She ditched the MSG that many of her contemporaries considered essential, and added in “rogue” elements like that packet of Cajun seasoning. A number of local cooks flat out refused to prepare food the way she wanted.“I still have a hard time finding people in the kitchen who will listen to me,” Tran says. “It’s a gender thing as well as a sexual orientation thing. There’s a longstanding culture of male chefs being in charge in a […]Vietnamese kitchen.”Over time, Tran’s unorthodox approach became her biggest asset both at home and in the United States. Yet while she’s known as something of a maverick in her home country, she’s also part of a longstanding tradition of gastronomic innovation. “The thing about Vietnamese food is it’s very progressive. It changes all the time,” Tran says. “You have 10,000 types of noodles and they’re all different. Street vendors come up with their own ideas and constantly add to the selection.”The same could be said about Houston, a city that has nearly doubled in population size since the end of the Vietnam War, in part due to an influx of immigrants. Houston often claims to be one of the most diverse cities in the United States, as well as the home of the U.S.’s second largest Vietnamese diaspora outside of California. All that cross-cultural melding has led to a risk-taking bunch of chefs who aim to reflect the culinary traditions housed in its vast urban sprawl.
“This is a city of opportunity and drive. It’s fun to open a restaurant here,” says Chris Shepherd. He would know. One Fifth, his current venture, is the third restaurant he has opened in Houston. “It’s also a pain in the ass.”“It’s a pain in the ass anywhere,” Tran says with a laugh. ““When I came back to Houston, I went to [Shepherd’s] restaurant and he always fed me until I screamed ‘stop!’ He told me, ‘If you come back here and you need anything, you let me know. I thought of it as a pipe dream to open a restaurant here.”For years, Tran kept reading The Houston Chronicle online, and she stayed in contact with Shepherd. To her, Houston somehow felt like home from the beginning. Maybe it was the familiar muggy heat or the fondness for chilies or the devil-may-care approach to zoning regulations that have allowed commercial and residential developments to run rampant in unchecked, barely planned organic growth.Or maybe it’s the presence of a population insatiable for the delicious and the different. Here, Tran feels free to experiment. As much as she enjoys making her signature “Viejun” dishes, she doesn’t want her brief brush with Netflix stardom to limit her to one kind of culinary label. In the coming months, she may serve Vietnamese street food out on her patio or she may do something different all together.As talk turns back to those crawfish, the Houstonians gathered around the kitchen get a little misty-eyed. The general consensus between them is that Vietnamese-Cajun style trounces the original, and that around these parts, a radical, refugee-born idea can take root in under two decades.“Seeing that culture start to spread, during that season when you walk into one these restaurants, it’s such a beautiful thing because it’s such a snapshot of our city,” Shepherd says. “It’s all cultures under one roof dining together and getting dirty. It makes me very joyful and it’s all over little things that swim in the dirt.”The crawfish are here to stay, as are Tran’s radical, constantly changing reinterpretations of her home cuisine.