“Vietnamese cuisine with a French twist”? Café Hélène’s self-description initially appeared to me a tautology considering France’s colonization of the country irrevocably influenced its traditional food and cooking. Further examination of the menu and a visit to the downtown location provided further illumination as to the unique fusion element of Café Hélène as well as why the restaurant has received so much buzz since its opening.
Appetizers, for example, are familiar but enhanced via slight innovations. Café Hélène puts its own unique spin on traditional chicken spring rolls, for example, by char-grilling them. The carbon sear not only provides a lovely exterior crunch but also pairs well with the earthy accompanying peanut sauce. The “with a French twist” aspect of Café Hélène becomes even clearer in the soup and salad portion of the menu, which includes nicoise salad and sup bi my, smooth cream soup infused with zucchini, onions, and celery. My favorite starter, the “Special Viet Crepe,” (a paper-thin pancake stuffed with pork, prawns, onions, and bean sprouts) is a similarly Eurasian amalgam. Large portion sizes mean you can make a meal on small plates alone at Café Hélène but don’t—at least not your first visit because without trying a few of their standout entrees your experience would be incomplete.
Case in point, the truly “pho-nominal” pho, especially the seafood variety with shrimp and white fish filets. Bovine enthusiasts as well as those seeking a heartier repast should go for the “deluxe” pho which combines eye round beef, brisket, and beef meatballs. Bun platters of bean sprouts, cumber, lettuce, carrots, vermicelli, and crushed peanuts plus your choice of protein (I recommend the char-grilled pork) are particularly refreshing and ideal for lunch on particularly sweltering afternoons. Where’s the veggies? Never fear, Café Hélène offers many botanical options that boast diverse flavors and textures like bánh xè chay, rice flour crepes with subtle notes of coconut stuffed with mung beans, tofu, and lettuce.
Many have noted (and rightfully) that Café Hélène does not proffer the cheapest pho and banh mi in town, understandable considering the every-increasing rents in their downtown location. And while counter service usually doesn’t set the tone for sophisticated ambience, it’s clear Café Hélène has invested time in money in design given the sleek chrome interior, red leather upholstery, and funky fixtures.
What also differentiates Café Helene from [insert random midtown Vietnamese restaurant here] is its artful desserts like the Grand Marnier chocolate mousse and peanut butter cup cheesecake. One bite of either will almost trick you into believing you have an afternoon of leisurely sightseeing ahead of you in the eighth arrondissement…rather than four hours in a cubicle.
3101 Main St
Houston, TX 77002