Concept: The Blind Goat
Chef: Christine Ha
Known for: Winning MasterChef Season 3
Cuisine: Regional Vietnamese
“The Blind Goat is my very first foray into the industry,” says Christine Ha, sitting in the dappled sunshine of Aris Market Square’s airy common room on an afternoon in July. “Unlike the other chefs, I didn’t come from running restaurants before. I consider myself a home cook.”
The home cook found herself in the middle of the restaurant industry after a star turn in 2012 on Gordon Ramsey’s MasterChef, a reality competition show where amateur cooks complete challenges set forth by the notoriously brash Ramsey. Those who make it through the elimination rounds and Ramsey’s criticism not only get the coveted MasterChef title, they take home a $250,000 prize. Ha won season three, where her final three-course meal was Thai papaya salad with crab and mixed vegetables; braised pork belly with rice, crispy kale and maitake mushrooms; and a dessert of coconut lime sorbet with a ginger tuile. With her win, she became the first legally blind contestant to take home the title. (Ha began gradually losing her sight in her 20s, after being diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, a condition that enflames the optic nerve).
“Since that win, people have been expecting me to open a place,” she says. “I’ve done pop-ups, but now I am finally at the stage where I felt like this opportunity was right, this was the right time and the right place.”
Ha describes The Blind Goat as a “modern Vietnamese gastropub.”
“I’m taking a lot of lesser-known street foods of Vietnam and giving them my own personal twist,” she says.
Born in southern California to Vietnamese parents and raised in Texas, Ha’s menu speaks to her history and heritage. Her mother died when she was 14, having never taught Ha how to cook.
“She didn’t leave any recipes. As many moms do, she just measured by knowledge or memory,” says Ha. “I really missed her cooking in college and decided to try to teach myself to cook.”
At first, she said, it was out of necessity. She bought Vietnamese cookbooks and began her self-taught journey while at the University of Texas. She’d read the recipes, trying to absorb the processes and ingredients that would become the food she remembered. Along the way, she found out she enjoyed cooking – especially when she shared her dishes with her roommates and friends and saw how they enjoyed eating them.
“There was something that made me very happy in creating something with my own two hands and satiating people and giving them joy as well,” she says.
She’s hoping diners at Bravery Chef Hall feel the same kind of joy. Ha loves that traditional Vietnamese noodle soups and banh mi sandwiches are as ubiquitous as barbecue and burgers in the Bayou City and believes The Blind Goat can introduce diners to different dishes.
“Across northern, central and southern Vietnam, they all have what I would call a different tweak in their cuisine,” she says. “I’m trying to take those foods and introduce them to Houston while putting my own spin on them.”
Her menu includes items such as kexo, a Vietnamese queso, where she incorporates a house-made hot sauce of dried shrimp, fish sauce, lemon grass and palm sugar into cheese sauce, then serves it with wonton chips. Another, more traditional dish, bánh khọt, which she describes as a turmeric coconut fritter, also makes an appearance.
There’s also the dish that’s most personal to her, her mother’s fried spring rolls. They use a Filipino style of wrapper, giving a bit more crisp and crunch than the traditional Vietnamese rice paper roll. Ha says this was her favorite thing her mom made. Because they were so labor intensive, she only made them for birthday parties or other celebrations. Like other dishes, Ha had to teach herself to make it, and she was delighted when she finally reproduced the taste she grew up loving.
For Ha, The Blind Goat is a culmination of experiences. After she lost her sight, she learned to rely more on her other senses, which have helped her in the kitchen. She’s had to train her staff that she needs things in precise places so she can easily grab them, and if things are moved, to give her detailed directions on where they are.
Ha wants to show diners how diverse the regional cooking of Vietnam can be. In the north, she explains, dishes are simple, with few ingredients and flavors from a bone broth. In the central region, dishes are more spicy, and in the south, they tend to be sweet.
“So all of these kinds of different lessons I’ve learned in my travels I want to share with Houstonians,” she says. “The cuisine is even broader than I knew.”