Rise of Saigon
With its fun menu of unexpected Cajun-tinged Vietnamese fare and wonderfully quirky cocktails — actual ‘bathtub’ gin, anyone? — Kau Ba is Montrose’s must-do springtime star. By Cowah Rebellis, Photos by Kirsten Gilliam
Approaching the front door of Kau Ba in Montrose, which has been a buzzy little hit in the district for a while now but just officially marked its grand opening in the fall, you may not realize you’re about to have a memorable, only-in-Houston foodie experience. This is an unassuming place, after all, with a little courtyard in front, and a patio on the side, both verdant and shaded and lined with plastic milk crates with cushions on top for seating — a nod to the no-frills environs of street-food eateries throughout Vietnam.
But Chef Nikki Tran, a darling of edgy-food TV shows such as Netflix’s Ugly Delicious who divides her time between her restaurants in Houston and Vietnam, delivers a spread of fascinating, fun food, inspired by recipes from her family and their native Saigon, with a dash of Cajun influence thrown in for kicks. Plus, there’s an exacting focus on fresh and organic ingredients — nothing fussy or overly complex.
Tran’s menu — simple and approachable and yet full of surprises — is broken down into three categories: Raw and Smalls for starters and salads and whatnot, and Biggies for shareable entrées. From the Raw selections, the Kaubaccio is a favorite. It’s a flavorsome spin on carpaccio, highlighting Wagyu beef, with fresh lemon, honey, basil, mint and crushed peanuts. Phil’s Favorite is a salad of raw mustard greens topped with spirals of raw salmon, julienned raw apples, fish roe and a wonderful wasabi-laced vinaigrette that’ll clear your sinuses.
Smalls range from traditional-seeming apps like dumplings and egg rolls, to incomparable dishes like Vietnamese Meatloaf. And one of the restaurant’s most popular items is a mess of baby soft-shell crabs that are lightly breaded and flash-fried to a crunch, then served with the house’s unique “Viejun” sauce, a citrusy sweet-and-savory dipping sauce with a bit of Cajun spice. Most folks eat the addictive little morsels with their fingers, like really good popcorn.
Must-do entrees include the Vietnamese Pizza, a thin crispy crust of rice paper topped with baby shrimp, dried shrimp, egg, garlic and green onions — and the Sunset K. Ribs, a favorite of regulars. The large, hearty pork ribs have a great crusty outside and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness on the inside; that Viejun sauce makes a return appearance here, slathered about messily, making the wet wipes that come with them quite useful.
Among the other surprises at Kau Ba is the bar, an inviting white marble affair generously stocked with a great variety of premium spirits, including more than 30 bourbons. This is not what you expect from your average Vietnamese joint. And it might be easy to dismiss its long list of whimsical house cocktails as too cute to be cool — the one called The Gaybourhood with rose-infused Roku gin, lychee and aloe comes in an actual little bathtub — if they weren’t so darn tasty. This is serious mixology, with top-notch fresh ingredients and well curated liquor, masquerading as low-key kitsch.
Like the restaurant itself, drinks at Kau Ba pack a potent punch, and manage to impress — even as they disarm and bring smiles.
AT TOP: Chef Nikki Tran