When I first met Dua, she went by a different name. I knew her then as Mo Mong, an Asian restaurant on Westheimer that for some reason my colleagues at Rice had decided was the go-to restaurant for department dinners. With its post-colonial cocktails and fusion Chinese-Vietnamese-Thai cuisine, Mo Mong, it seemed, desperately wanted to be trendy. Unfortunately, inconsistent menu offerings (I heard “I’m sorry, that’s not available” on more than one occasion) and hit-or-miss service prevented Mo Mong from that popular restaurant.
Dua, however, seems destined for bigger things. Partial refurbishment and redecoration has made the two-tiered interior dining space brighter and more inviting (if you can get over the blown-up photos of nineteenth-century opium dens). The food is more focused, with a menu that specializes in “traditional Vietnamese family recipes.” So, as you might expect, there’s no shortage of pho, banh mi, and vermicelli bowls on hand for those craving straight-forward Vietnamese fare.
But that’s not why you should go to Dua. Equally good (or better) and cheaper Vietnamese staples can be found all over Houston. Rather, make one, hell, multiple trips to Dua for its noodle, rice, and protein dishes that are elegant, potentially unorthodox twists on traditional cuisine.
Let’s start with the appetizers. Skip the satisfying but predictable steamed dumplings and satay beef for fried spring rolls stuffed with coconut, macadamia nuts, shrimp, and avocado. Although the tropical crunchy-creamy filling needs no accompaniment, a few dunks in the side of orange chili sauce provides some additional sweet heat. Dauntless diners should go for one (or both) of Dua’s most intriguing appetizers, the intense, not for the faint of heart Vietnamese blood sausage with spicy fish sauce or the powerful head cheese, lightly battered and fried until supple. In warmer weather, I suggest focusing on Dua’s lighter starters, such as the popular papaya duck salad, whose citrus notes are balanced by the flavors of rich savory poultry and chopped peanuts. With its powerful protein component, this salad could eat like a meal.
But skipping an entrée would do a vast disservice to Dua’s playful main courses. As in the case of appetizers, there’s pedestrian curry noodles and [insert meat here] paired with broccoli or eggplant. They’re fine. Just fine. I can’t say the same, however, for the tantalizing twice-cooked caramelized pork belly with hard-boiled eggs, a sumptuous marriage of fatty pig and bright refreshing ova, or the playful ca sot ca chua, in which pan-fried salmon is draped in tomato fish sauce.
With its re-launch, Dua also debuted a menu of exoticized brunch dishes like the banh tet, sticky rice with mung bean, pork belly, Chinese sausage, and an over-easy duck egg. That alone would make me get up before 2 p.m. on Sunday; there’s also the additional incentive of $12 bottomless kimchi bloody marys. Mo Mong who? I’m with Dua now.Dua 1201 Westheimer Road, Suite B Houston, TX. 77006