Houston-based MasterChef Season 3 winner Christine Ha has earned accolades and a James Beard Award semi-finalist nomination for her stellar take on Vietnamese cuisine at her restaurants, the Blind Goat in Bravery Chef Hall and Xin Chao in Sixth Ward. But with her latest project, Ha and her husband John Suh will be diving into a seemingly more simple, but no less satisfying endeavor — sandwiches.
Ha and Suh plan to open a new drive-thru sandwich shop, Stuffed Belly, in Spring Branch in March 2023 — an idea that Ha says has been percolating in their minds for five years, even before opening her first restaurant, the Blind Goat.
“I’ve been doing Vietnamese food and all these creative takes. I wanted to stretch my creative muscles into something else, and having been born in the states and growing up in Texas, there’s so much diversity here,” she says. “I don’t only eat Vietnamese food, and sandwiches are comfort for me, regardless of what cuisine it is.”
Ha says she has plans to go far beyond Vietnamese banh mi, with a variety of “stuffed” sandwiches, including more whimsical and fun renditions of comforting classics. Ha says she plans to do a Gas Station tuna salad as an ode to her childhood; a Sichuan-dusted fried chicken sandwich; a tomato confit grilled cheese; and a version of a chopped cheese or smash burger. The chef has also been tirelessly working on a pho-strami, a pastrami sandwich that incorporates pho spices, she says.
Ha’s appreciation for sandwiches stems back to her childhood road trips when her parents would often stop at a gas station and buy tuna fish sandwiches. They weren’t the best, Ha says, but considering that she mostly ate Vietnamese food at home, getting to have a tuna sandwich was something different. “I loved it,” she says.
Later in life, after developing neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder, or NMOSD — a condition that caused Ha to lose her vision, Ha says sandwiches became her go-to comfort food, particularly following her infusion immunotherapy sessions.
“Every time afterward, John would pick me up, and he’d ask, ‘What do you want to eat?’ And I’d find myself over and over again always wanting a sandwich,” she says.
Her husband, Suh — Ha’s “resident sandwich expert” — too, has a vested interest in Stuffed Belly, she says. “He appreciates sandwiches much more than I do. He really loves them and dissects what makes them good. And we both agreed, it is about the bread, sauces, and condiments on it,” Ha says.
Ha says the two have often joked about their love of sandwiches, talking regularly about opening a sandwich shop. “We always like a protein that’s stuffed in a carb, whether it’s a kolache, bao, or banh mi, so we wanted some version of the word ‘stuffed’ [in the title],” she says. But the prospect of a third restaurant didn’t seem plausible until they signed the lease to relocate Blind Goat, now in Downtown food hall Bravery Hall, to a larger location. The nearby to-go, drive-thru spot, which formerly served micheladas in the same parking lot as Blind Goat's new location, seemed perfect, Ha says.
“Having done two boutique restaurants, they’ve been passion projects, and it’s hard work. But for the third concept, I want something that I can put a lot of work into; a fresh, clean brand that’s recognizable; and a solid menu that speaks to desire and comfort food, with sandwiches at a good price point,” Ha says.
“We have been working on catering to people’s different protein preferences and different diets,” she says, while also looking to the fun menu incorporations, like tater tots.
Ha and her husband broke ground at Stuffed Belly’s building the week of October 17 and are working to establish a new kitchen for the restaurant, which will also have a drive-thru, counter-service for takeout, and limited seating for those looking to dine in.
Construction for the new Blind Goat, which is slated to open in December, is halfway finished. With a larger kitchen, the restaurant will offer an expanded menu with an added emphasis on Vietnamese street food, including a version of banh trang nuong, or a Vietnamese-style pizza — a shared dish made with grilled rice paper that’s topped with a sauce and ingredients, plus a variety of seafood dishes, including baby clams, crabs, snails, and uni, and a variety of sharable dishes to pair with beer and cocktails. The decor will take on an oceanside vibe in hopes of capturing the essence of eating beachside or at an open-air market in Vietnam, Ha says.
Ha says Xin Chao’s general manager Blake Lewis will move into a position similar to a director of operations, overseeing all of Ha’s restaurants. Alex Koon, who previously established the bar program at Heights’ Vietnamese restaurant Moon Rabbit and sushi restaurant Izakaya, will be the beverage manager, and chef Nick Wong, formerly of Underbelly Hospitality, will help with the launches of both restaurants, largely serving as a chef or culinary consultant, Ha says.
Having both of the restaurants so close together, and in Spring Branch, where Ha and Suh now live, is a particularly exciting venture, the chef says.
“It’s closer to home and a place where we can see people and hang out all time. We’re very excited and feel blessed, and Spring Branch will hopefully support us and give us feedback,” Ha says.