Friends and pho

This Vietnamese eatery draws an arty clientele with noodle soup, dumplings — and layer cake

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
April 21, 2005

It is the horrid, Darwinistic truth that restaurants generally get one, and only one, chance to earn our continued patronage.

Jenni's Noodle House blew that chance with me some years ago, back when I wasn't reviewing Houston restaurants regularly and met a friend there for lunch, as a private citizen.

I remember vividly the table at which we sat, looking through a large plate-glass window onto a slightly raffish Old Chinatown strip center parking lot, and the bland, stodgy pork dumplings and uninspired vermicelli bowl at which I picked. I wanted more herbs. I wanted more soul. I wanted to be at another restaurant.

Yet I liked the idea of Jenni's: from its amusingly self-conscious hipster-Vietnamese-noodle-house style, to its artsy young clientele, to its location by the Pierce Elevated, right on the gerbil trail from my East End neighborhood to deeper downtown.

I liked Jenni's knowing, modern music and its backstory, too. Owner Jenni Tran-Weaver, a photogenic Continental Airlines employee, switched careers and founded a family business that combined some mom-style recipes with a contemporary sensibility, bringing her husband and sister along for the ride.

That the beautiful sister's name happened to be Milky Way, and that Jenni's husband's auto was a fabulous 1972 Buick Centurion convertible — frequently visible in the parking lot — was the icing on the boho cake.

Yet the food that day just wasn't good enough to woo me back.

As a critic, though, I am paid to keep an open mind.

So on a recent late afternoon, goaded by favorable reports from friends and starving after a day of errands, I walked into a near-vacant Jenni's and sat at the selfsame table I had occupied on my first visit.

I ordered a potful of chrysanthemum tea and a batch of the fried pork dumplings.

Pure bliss.

The ground-pork dumplings were quirkily deep-fried, not pan-sautéed in classic pot-sticker style, and they were sturdy, crisp, full-flavored marvels. A brisk, gingery, vinegary dip made them even better. They bore no resemblance to the depressing dumplings of memory.

And oh, the subtlety of that chrysanthemum tea: aromatic, slightly floral, a delicate brew that could restore an errand-addled zombie to life. Drawn by the perfume, I peered inside the pot to see pale blossoms unfurling themselves as they steeped.

I was so happy I ordered a couple of so-called "dream rolls" for dessert. Remarkably fresh, soft, vegetarian-friendly spring rolls arrived, each with deep-green lettuce and a thin slab of seared tofu shining beneath a translucent rice-paper skin. Soft vermicelli innards spiked with the lingering funk of shiitake mushroom completed the picture, along with more of that sprightly ginger dip.

So cheap, at $3 for two rolls. So simple. So good.

That's why I found myself back at Jenni's with two demanding friends for lunch in midweek. We were hoping to score bowls of Jenni's celebrated pho tai (pronounced "fuh tie," more or less), the Vietnamese noodle soup afloat with barely cooked, shaved eye of round and customized with a verdant platter of accompaniments.

Pho gains charisma by virtue of what you add: mint and cilantro, handfuls of crisp bean sprouts, whomping squeezes of fresh lime, green cartwheels of jalapeño.

(Some folks jolt the bowl with spurts of soy or Sriracha Thai chile sauce, but in my opinion, a pho that needs that much help is not worthy of its name.)

Jenni's pho, by virtue of its unusually heady, deep-toned broth, stands as a serious soup on its own. Ribbons of red onion and good-quality discs of beef ramp up its savoriness, and the add-ins make the soup an eventful party in a bowl. It's not available every day, but it should be. It's that good.

Brock Wagner, the local brewmeister for St. Arnold's beer — which is featured in Jenni's cooler — has penned a tabletop tent praising Jenni's pho as "orgasmic." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but he's clearly a judge of majorly estimable pho.

We also feasted that noon on tiny, glazed imperial rolls, impeccably fried, and deep-fried vegetable dumplings with a soulful mushroom filling. We sipped admirably gentle, not-too-sweet limeade from big tumblers. We scarfed up gorgeous shrimp-topped spring rolls that came off as the essence of springtime freshness.

And then, just as we should have paid up and left happy, we discovered that Jenni's serves some of the very best old-fashioned layer cakes in town.

These confections, lovingly constructed by a local talent who calls herself the "Baking Diva," are as unexpected as they are delightful. A buttery triple-layer yellow cake gets a topping of the smoothest, deep dark-chocolate ganache, with a smattering of semisweet mini chocolate chips for good measure. Hummingbird cake, a revered Southern staple involving pineapple and coconut, shelters under one of the best (and least sweet) cream cheese frostings in town. Even boring old carrot cake has some presence in the hands of the Baking Diva.

At 5 bucks a pop, these mammoth slabs are big enough to share. Or, even better, to tote home, where the occasional refrigerator chill will wear off and the flavors bloom.

Would that my recent experiences at Jenni's were all so blessed. But, as regulars here are apt to tell you, the food has its ups and downs, usually correlated to whether Jenni is in the kitchen.

Since Jenni gave birth to a baby boy in the last few weeks, she's not in the kitchen lately. Perhaps that is why on a recent evening I experienced two of the most dismal stir-fries I have ever encountered. Butter-sautéed beef on a vinaigrette-laced green salad was tough and tasted of weary oil; so-called ginger snow peas with tofu tasted mainly of carbonized singe and incinerated red onion.

At least they cost only $9 (every one of Jenni's entrees stays below the magic $10 impecunious-hipster mark).

Those stir-fries and a clammy and completely unseasoned seaweed-and-cucumber salad, billed as bearing a pepper vinaigrette, left me convinced Jenni's still hasn't worked out the problems I encountered on my first, unfortunate visit.

But the place has its unique charms, right down to the vaguely creepy Michael Jackson music looping on the soundtrack during my last visit. Warts and all, I'm marking unpredictable Jenni's as a viable rest stop on my personal Houston gerbil trail.

Jenni's Noodle House: 2130 Jefferson at Hutchins
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Prices: starters $3-$5; entrees $5-$9; desserts $5
Credit cards: all major
Reservations: not required
Noise level: quiet to moderate
Smoking: no

Hot tip: great for a mid-afternoon snack, with chrysanthemum tea
Call 713-228-3400 for more information.


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