Welcome to the fourth installment of Travels with Frenchie, a monthly food series in which a trio of culturally mismatched San Antonians explore our city’s culinary nooks and crannies. As with last month’s investigation of Akaushi beef on the South Side, our team consisted of Frenchie (aka Fabien Jacob, sommelier at Le Rêve), Carlos the Mechanic (aka Carlos Montoya, informal taco scholar), and me (recovering vegan and known taco-truck stalker). As if that weren’t enough, this month we were accompanied by Bob the Gardener (aka Brad Wier, master of herbs.)
We headed out to the underappreciated Northeast side for lunch at Beijing House, a very new restaurant located at 11403 O’Connor Road and IH-35. I had never heard as much as a whisper about Beijing House (or more aptly, the previous restaurant at that location, 4-Star Authentic Asian Cuisine), but one look at their online menu was more than enough to pull me in.
Though the name Beijing House suggests Chinese, the restaurant also offers Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Vietnamese fare. Though they hope to appeal to a wide audience, Beijing House ultimately is a Vietnamese owned and run restaurant. In particular, they offer a few authentic Vietnamese dishes rarely seen here in town, or even Austin, where Vietnamese restaurants abound. I’m thinking of French-influenced items such as crepes, grilled frog, and duck. Through bad luck and a lack of foresight, we were only able to order one of those three, the main course of Vit Nau Chao, which is more commonly known as a duck hot pot, or “duck soup.”
In quick stages we were treated to grilled quail, summer rolls, and spring rolls. I preferred the summer rolls to the spring rolls for their inherent freshness. The fresh mint herbs added a cool nuance, but I did agree with Carlos that they seemed out of season, especially on a cold day.
Carlos and Fabien both delighted in the spring rolls and found them to be far superior to what we were used to at other Vietnamese places in town. Carlos appreciated how the multitude of flavors (pork, shrimp … ) balanced perfectly. The taste of oil was almost absent, as if they were toasted rather than deep-fried.
The grilled quail was tender and popular with all of us, but overshadowed by a discussion of the dipping sauce. Though it was mainly soy sauce, Fabien was intrigued with the other ingredients, convinced there was a hint of star anise somewhere in there.
Before the duck hot pot arrived, two large plates of vegetables and herbs were placed on the table. At this point, Bob, with light prodding on our part, gave us a quick lecture on what was before us — bok choy and mustard greens, mainly — though even he was stumped by one herb. We agreed it must have been arugula’s distant Asian cousin.
The duck hot pot made a heroic entrance as it was placed on a gas-powered cooker at the table. It was a perfect dish for the day, with the temperature outside descending into the 30s. We thought there would have been some hints of red chili, lemongrass, or the basil and cilantro one finds with pho, but the dominant flavors were taro root, bok choy, and, of course, duck. The taro root was boiled to a perfect softness, providing starch as well as an indescribable silkiness. A whole duck was used, which could either excite or scare people who are used to only the breast. Fabien was happy to try the feet and the head.
The hot pot seemed to have no bottom, as it kept providing us bowl after bowl. The dish was advertised as serving four but could probably service six or seven diners.
Though we wished the plate of herbs and other greens were fresher, there was little to complain about that day. I look forward to returning for the more commonly found pho or bun, though there are other hot pots to be tasted, with goat being a favorite of the owner. If you’re interested in a duck, goat, or seafood hot pot, make sure to call about two to three hours ahead of time for preparation: (210) 599-8989.
For those desperately seeking another Vietnamese option, I highly suggest you give Beijing House a shot. As the temperature continues to fall (and rise, and fall), the choice is as easy as duck soup (I know … ). •