Living in the Woodlands spoils you in many ways. The town has grown up since its humble beginnings, and now boasts a population of nearly 100,000, along with a range of upscale businesses dedicated to supporting the highly sought-after demographic. And the restaurant scene is thriving, with some of Houston's best restaurants calling the Woodlands home. There's even a Facebook group devoted to finding great food in the Woodlands and surrounding areas.

For some, the Woodlands is a sort of bubble that never has to be left. But not for me, nor for other dedicated foodies who are always in search of great new places to eat.

What the Woodlands doesn't have is a wide selection of small, ethnic restaurants, particularly the Asian spots that pop up all over the Houston area. The independents that do call the Woodlands home trend toward the upscale, largely due to the rents in the Woodlands proper.

But as someone who loves Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese cuisine, especially from small, family run establishments, venturing outside the bubble is a way of life if you're in search of great food. But which way to go?

Fortunately, friends in the Woodlands Area Foodies group are avid culinary explorers, and new suggestions appear on a regular basis. We've learned to trust the recommendations of several of the members implicitly, and when they say "Let's meet here for lunch!" we jump at the chance.

Proprietor Alex Nguyen talks with WAF members Huy Dang and Tom Nguyen (eclipsed)

A case in point is Nguyen Ngo 2, an Vietnamese sandwich shop located just south of FM 1960 on Bammell North Houston road. NN2, as regulars call it, specializes in that delicious Vietnamese sandwich that has become iconic in H-Town,  the Banh Mi.

Banh Mi is a big deal in Houston, driven largely by our large Vietnamese community. Even Houston's home-grown high-end burger chain, Beck's Prime, has rolled out its take on the Banh Mi.

Nguyen Ngo 2's version of this iconic sandwich is far more traditional. The proprietor, Alex Nguyen, learned sandwich making from his grandfather in Viet Nam - a photo taken in the 1960's showing the elder Nguyen's chicken sandwich shop hangs proudly on the wall.

The formula at Nguyen Ngo 2 is a distillation of the classic Banh Mi, but with subtle adjustments to make it appeal to a broader, modern audience. Gone is the sometimes harshly crunchy bread found in some AsiaTown Banh Mi shops; it's replaced with freshly baked french rolls with just a touch of crunch, and a soft, gently chewy interior. Numerous different meats are available, and Alex is on hand to guide a newcomer toward a sandwich that will appeal to him. All of the traditional veggies are present in extremely crisp, fresh form; the traditional pickled carrots have been toned down, again with a nod toward broadening the sandwich's appeal.

First we tried the slice ribeye Banh Mi, a fusion of the cuisine of Ho Chi Minh City with that of Philadelphia by way of Houston.

Sliced Ribeye Banh Mi at Nguyen Ngo 2

This sandwich grabbed our attention with its amalgam of flavors that came together in a harmonious whole. The rich, beefy flavor of the marinated, thinly sliced roast beef was accented by the sharp notes of the fresh jalapenos, the earthy flavor of the fresh cilantro and sliced carrots, and the tang of the housemade garlic mayo, which reminded us much more of an aoli. This sandwich is a great introduction to Nguyen Ngo 2, and made us anxious to try more.

Though we weren't really hungry, another sandwich was calling our name. Tom spoke highly of the combination of Vietnamese meatballs and sausage, and we had to try it.

Meatball and Sausage Banh Mi at Nguyen Ngo 2

As much as we loved the ribeye, this sandwich is our new Banh Mi crush. Sweet, savory, gently hot, nicely tangy, with crunch and chew and softness all rolled into one sandwich. A superbly crafted dish from a world-class chef will hit you from several distinct directions at once, and this sandwich easily falls into that category. It is among the best sandwiches we've ever tasted, and at under $4, it represents an unparalleled value.

Lex brought out a small container that he wanted us to try. It contained their house made Vietnamese kimchee. We'd only sampled Korean kimchee before, and were looking forward to trying this different version.

Vietnamese Kimchee at Nguyen Ngo 2

We were not disappointed. The traditional sourness and vinegar balanced with a kick of ginger and just the right touch of heat. The result is both refreshing and satisfying; perhaps the perfect side dish for a hot Houston day. If some BBQ joint doesn't talk Lex out of this recipe and add it as a side, they're missing out; it would pair perfectly with some great smoky brisket.

To say we're fans of Nguyen Ngo is to put it mildly. This small, jewel-like restaurant is a perfect example of what makes Houston's food scene so remarkable. Even those on a tight budget can enjoy superb cuisine served by an owner who is both talented and engaged with his customers. You can certainly pay a lot more for lunch in Houston, but you'll be hard pressed to find a meal you'll enjoy more.

Nguyen Ngo 2 | 14015 Bammel N Houston Road | 281-895-8998

Nguyen Ngo 2 on Urbanspoon

For several months, we've heard that Houston finally has a source for an outstanding bowl of ramen. Foodie friends have been raving about Tiger Den, located in Chinatown on Bellaire near the Beltway. According to those we trust, no longer is a trip to Austin's Ramen Tatsu-Ya necessary for a great bowl of ramen.

So, on a recent Saturday afternoon, a break in the dreary March weather prompted us to venture down to investigate. Robert Frasier, a good friend who's a serious cook and a very knowledgable foodie was in the mood to take his lime green Jeep out for a spin, so a plan was hatched. The outing combined three of our favorite things: Driving on a gorgeous day, interesting food, and good friends.

The drive down to Chinatown was swift; when you're in a brightly colored, tricked out Jeep, people stay out of your way. By the time we pulled into Dun Huang Plaza, night had just fallen. The magic of Houston's Chinatown was in full force - the colorful neon would not be out of place in Japan. High performance cars were circulating in the parking lot, seeking out the elusive empty spaces, but our driver's neon green Jeep wasn't to be trifled with, and we secured a spot near the restaurant.

Walking up, we were greeted by a packed sidewalk, and the sign-up sheet for tables taped to a window. Adding our party, we surveyed the crowd. Mixed in age, we saw couples and groups, and several large families waiting patiently for their names to be called. After about 30 minutes, it was our turn, and we were led into the bustling dining room. Seating was tight - booths lined the walls, a bar faced the open kitchen, and a large communal table was situated under the retro-tastic 70's light fixtures.

Looking into the kitchen, the well coordinated staff was in high gear amid the steam and smoke from the food being prepared. The energy level in the kitchen was tremendous; Tiger Den is a well oiled machine.

After packing into our snug booth, it was time to order. We had come prepared. We'd gotten expert guidance from Lex Nguyen, owner of the superlative Nguyen Ngo 2 banh mi shop, and one of the most knowledgable people I know about Asian cuisine. Lex had given us a slate of recommendations, and we followed his list religiously.

First up was the Beef Tongue Yakitori. Thinly sliced tongue, perfectly grilled, served with shredded green onions and spicy mustard. The texture was slightly chewy and the combined flavors of the beef, onions and mustard were very good.

Next up was a dish that really wowed us. Roasted Brussels sprouts, cooked in a salty/sweet/spicy chili sauce. These are easily the best Brussels sprouts I've ever tasted, from the slightly crunchy texture to the complex flavors imparted by the chili sauce. As a kid, I hated the boiled Brussels sprouts my mom would serve, but had mom prepared these, I might have been be a vegan today.

Next up is the main event, the ramen. Lex suggested going straight for the spicy Miso Ramen. It's a traditional tonkatsu ramen, with the flavor turned up by the addition of a spicy miso paste. The technique is a savvy one; in some cases, miso ramen can end up far too salty as it simmers for hours; Tiger Den's approach of adding the miso just before serving is an inspired one.

(Photo Credit: Robert Frasier)

The result is a rich, satisfying broth, with powerful umami and complex layers of flavor. The spicy miso adds just a touch of heat; it's no where near the sort of weapons grade heat that can be found in some Asian dishes, but rather complements the flavors of the rich fatty pork, the firm, flavorful wood-ear mushrooms, and the fresh, zesty vegetables.  Hits of ginger and garlic added more layers and complexity.

Going beyond the broth, ramen is all about the noodles, and Tiger Den's do not disappoint. Instead of ordering from New York's Sun Noodles, as many top ramen shops do, Tiger Den goes the extra step of making their noodles in house, just as Houston's top Italian restaurants do. This unexpected touch delivered a superlative Hakata noodle - al dente, slightly chewy, with great mouthfeel and a rough surface that causes the broth to cling and bring the complex flavor along for the ride.

The lively conversation at the table stopped as we each devoured our ramen, alternating between relatively delicate bites of the pork and vegetables, sips of the addictive broth, and slurps of the superlative noodles.

After devouring the ramen, one of Lex's recommendations remained. Fresh donuts with Pandan cream. The donuts were quarter-sized chunks of fluffy, flaky fried dough, deceptively light, and the bright green pandan cream was sweet, smooth, and rich, the perfect finish to a delicious meal.

We're very happy to report that Tiger Den lives up to it's lofty reputation. The lines at the door are the direct result of the well-choreographed kitchen's outstanding work.

If you're looking for ramen in Houston, look no further.

Tiger Den | 9889 Bellaire Blvd | Houston TX 77036 | 832-804-7755

Tiger Den on Urbanspoon

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