Executive Dining - Quirky café offers authentic taste of Vietnam
May 16 - 22, 2003

Jenni's Noodle House is one-year-old this month, and the charming audacity that defines the place and helped it to survive is still winningly intact.

The establishment's creator, Jenni Tran-Weaver, knew that if she opened a Vietnamese restaurant in Houston's so-called Chinatown, in the shadow of the gigantic Kim Son and other eateries with large floor plans, she couldn't compete in terms of volume or variety (Kim Son's menu runs to hundreds of items). But she could outdo them in quirkiness and sass, and those qualities are what make eating at Jenni's so enjoyable.

Jenni's Noodle House is located in Chinatown Plaza, a tiny strip mall on Jefferson at Hutchins and St. Joseph Parkway whose other occupants include an herbalist, a tax preparer and a defensive-driving academy. Patrons are greeted by a family of plastic pink flamingos stuck into the curbside ground. Just inside the door is a rack hung with the brightly colored feather boas that customers and the servers are invited to don on Boa Fridays. The personable servers, who sometimes look young enough to be high school kids, sport T-shirts with such slogans as "Madonna Eats Here," "Make Your Belly Proud," and "My Noodle Is Bigger Than Your Noodle."

Jenni's airy dining room was decorated on the cheap but is still attractive. Upside-down Chinese paper parasols cover the ceiling lights and soften their illumination. The walls, painted a rich pumpkin or terra cotta, are hung with black-and-white photos that Tran-Weaver took of her homeland. And although the space is small, the tables are not crammed together. Despite the ample aisle space, though, I never saw anybody treated to co-owner Scott Weaver's special lap dance (the menu says it costs $50 and has to be ordered way in advance).

What's always on call, and for much less than 50 bucks, is Tran-Weaver's homage to the kind of simple food that her mother cooked for her family both in Vietnam and, after they emigrated to Houston, right here in town.

The stick-to-the-basic menu is divided into three categories - $3 Steals (appetizers), Deals (soup and salads costing $5 or $6), and $8 Meals (entrees, some of which are named after relatives or favorite customers). The beverage lineup includes hot chrysanthemum tea, stout and not-to-sweet iced Vietnamese coffee, excellent limeade and bottled water (tap water is not on tap here).

Disco Dumplings can be had either steamed or fried with either vegetables or beef. I tried them steamed and lightly filled with earthy vegetable mixture. They were very tasty, especially when dipped in the jalapeno-and-ginger-spiked soy sauce that comes alongside.

Dream Rolls are simultaneously lightly and heartier. A vegan version of spring rolls, they replace the customary shrimp with shitake mushrooms and meaty slabs of tofu. Seaweed salad, a disarming combination of cucumber and chopped seaweed that I got to sample as an entrée side dish, is also available as a starter.

One of the Deals, Buddha Soba, is a cold salad of spagettini-thin buckwheat noodles, shitake mushrooms, bean sprouts and baby bok choy in a light and soy-dressing. Filling enough for lunch or dinner all by itself, it can also double as an appetizer for two. But it's laid-back flavor definitely benefits from a splash of the soy sauce that (along with bottled chili sauce) is on every table.

One of the most interesting dishes on Jenni's menu is the one dedicated to the owner's mother. Mama Tran's Sour Spicy Shrimp Soup is a delectable tart and peppery stew laced with lemongrass, bean sprouts, okra, tomato and chucks of pineapple. Stir in the jasmine rice that comes with it and you have a substantial and very refreshing meal.

Even better, though, are Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp and two coconut-based curry dishes named after two of Houston's most colorful cultural institutions.The only thing that could make the vibrant, succulent shrimp better would be more of them (six is the ration).

Art Car Curry, which honors the annual parade of outrageously creative conveyances, is a vegetarian dish made with potatoes, carrots, mushrooms and tofu. Infernal Chicken Curry presumable gets its name from its heat content but from Infernal Bridegroom Productions, one of Houston's friskiest theater troupes. Here, chunks of chicken breasts swim in a coconut-flavored broth that will delight fans of Thailand's classic soups.

Ginger chicken consists of bite-sized bits of white meat stir-fried with red onion, minced ginger and fresh jalapeno slices and served on a bed of jasmine rice with a small dish of seaweed salad as lagniappe. The chicken was a bit dry the night I tried it, and some of the jalapenos were scorched, but the dish was still eminently eatable.

A slice of yellow cake with chocolate frosting lacked the last word in rich indulgence, but the tres leches cake was first-rate. Jenni's Noodle House may be rooted in the everyday cuisine of its owner's native Vietnam, but it knows its hip audience well enough to stock a top-notch version of this Houston-favorite Hispanic dessert.

SUMMING UP Rating: 2 forks (return with pleasure) Food: Home-style Vietnamese Atmosphere: Sunny and playful Service: Relaxed but attentive


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