Fall restaurant openings may not be arriving at their typically frantic pace (pre-COVID), but new establishments are making their debuts. One of the most eagerly anticipated is Xin Chao, the modern Vietnamese restaurant from chefs Christine Ha (The Blind Goat) and Tony Nguyen (Saigon House) that began its soft opening last week.
Located in the former Beaver’s/Decatur Bar space at 2310 Decatur St., Xin Chao (“hello” in Vietnamese), unites two chefs who have each earned solid reputations for their work. Ha won Season 3 of the cooking competition show Masterchef and earned a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination in the Best New Restaurant category for The Blind Goat, her restaurant at downtown’s Bravery Chef Hall. Nguyen earned a spot on CultureMap’s list of Houston’s top 100 restaurants for Saigon House, his Viet-Cajun restaurant, and has consulted on a number of concepts, including Kamp, the recently opened bar and restaurant from the owners of Prospect Park.
Ha tells CultureMap that Xin Chao will offer a more elevated experience than what’s on offer at The Blind Goat. For the first time, she’s able to offer a full beverage program, complete with cocktails developed by general manager Christopher Nguyen and local beverage consultant Linda Salinas.
“I would say at The Blind Goat we’re taking a lot more inspiration from Vietnamese street food,” she explains. “Here, we’re doing a more elevated of Vietnamese dishes. We’re taking traditional flavors and using higher end ingredients or more modern cooking techniques or local cooking techniques like smoking and applying our understanding of that to these types of dishes.”
For example, Xin Chao serves a take on Goi Vit, the salad made with pulled duck, cabbage, and herbs. Here, the duck gets smoked; then, it’s served with jackfruit, walnuts, and arugula in addition to cabbage and herbs.
Some diners might recognize the inspiration for the restaurant’s braised pork belly and crispy rice — Ha served a version of the dish as her entree when she won Masterchef; the crispy rice takes its inspiration from Ha’s husband John Suh’s Korean heritage.
“It’s something I grew up eating at least twice a month,” Ha says about the pork belly. “The same with Tony, that’s one of his favorite dishes.”
Both chefs also share a love for fried chicken and decided to include it on Xin Chao’s menu. Their take starts with a marinade of buttermilk and lemongrass. The batter features grains of pandan rice, which means its crust has little green specks. Served family style in whole or half chicken portions, it comes with a rotating side (potato wedges for soft opening weekend), housemade pickles, beef tallow aioli, and hot saté honey from The Blind Goat.
In addition to providing a Korean touch to the menu, Suh also led the interior and exterior renovation. Xin Chao aims to be lighter and brighter than the former occupants of the space. In addition, the interior feature a mural by local Vietnamese-American artist Caroline Truong as well as paintings originally purchased by Ha’s father, a retired architect, for her childhood home. A spacious patio provides plenty of outdoor seating, which both suits Covid concerns and is comfortable thanks to the recent cold front.
Currently, Xin Chao is only open for dinner Thursday-Monday, but Ha says she and Nguyen plan to add weekend brunch soon. The duo have been playing around with ideas such as fried chicken with pandan waffles, Vietnamese steak and eggs, and even avocado toast.