PHOTO: A full spread of Vietnamese food in white and blue glassware. One plate shows eggrolls cut in half, with a small tin cup of dip and lettuce. The next plate shows the restaurant's take on apple pie. A staple that won owner Christine Há MasterChef, season 3. The next is a bowl of G.O.A.T. curry.

24 Hours in Houston with Aitana Yvette Mallari

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PHOTO: Christine Ha, wearing a black chef's coat and rubber gloves stands next to a man wearing a black backwards hat, thick rimmed glasses, a red and black checkered button up and a black apron. They stand side-by-side inside of a kitchen at The Blind Goat and are chopping vegetables.   Photo by Kolanowski Studios.

24 Hours in Houston

Story by Aitana Yvette Mallari

Photos by Kolanowski Studios, Inc.

24 Hours in Houston

This is about food. But this is also about disability. It's about being American or not American enough. It's about a chef who's blind and a driver who isn't deaf, two friends from New Orleans and one traveler from Mexico, a retired trucker and an aspiring Ph.D. student.

It's about loving home, no matter where it is. No matter who you are. No matter what anyone says. 

This is 24 hours in Houston.

SEASON THREE, EPISODE FIVE 


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When I open my laptop at the airport at 5 a.m., 20 episodes of “MasterChef” season 3 start playing simultaneously at full volume; the terminal is haunted by the furious voice of Gordon Ramsey.

I scramble with my headphones and close each video in shame, except one—the one famous for the scene from season 3, episode 5.

Christine Hà, the first blind contestant on “MasterChef,” presents an apple pie to Gordon Ramsey. She’s the last one to be judged and worried. Pie isn’t her forte, and Hà expects to be eliminated.

“What do you think this pie looks like?” Ramsey asks her.

Hà looks down. “I think it probably looks like a pile of rubbish.”

“Visually,” Ramsey says, “it looks stunning.”

He goes on to describe her pie—the brown crisp of the crust, the glaze of the sugar. At one point, he scrapes a knife across the top so Hà and the other contestants can hear its texture. The celebrity chef, known for his fiery critique, softens his voice. 

“You’ve got to start believing in yourself more, okay?” he says. Hà nods and begins to cry. Soon, other contestants watching from a distance cry too. 

Ramsey takes a bite, and the flavor’s amazing. Hà stays in the competition, passing round after round until finally winning the “MasterChef” title in 2012.

Since then, she’s released “Recipes from My Home Kitchen,” her cookbook of Asian and American comfort food; guest-judged on both “MasterChef U.S.” and “MasterChef Vietnam;” traveled worldwide as a speaker and chef; served as a culinary envoy of the American Embassy and blogged it all on her website, “The Blind Cook.”

In 2018, Hà announced that her first restaurant venture, The Blind Goat, was underway. She started a YouTube mini-series with her husband, John Suh, to document the process, and by the time I flew to Texas to visit during the restaurant’s soft opening, I had watched them deal with everything from paperwork to construction. 

But there was more to Hà story than any research could reveal. 

BIENVENIDO A HOUSTON

Houston greets me with an unholy amount of humidity and an overcast sky. As travelers hurry along, a notification chirps from my ride-share app: "Your driver is deaf or hard of hearing."

I brush up on some ASL while waiting. When my driver pulls up, I excitedly sign "nice to meet you," but I'm met with a confused stare. 

Maybe I did it wrong? 

As we drive toward the city, the GPS directs in Spanish. A miniature Venezuelan flag on the dashboard flutters in the AC. After ten minutes of silence, he turns on the radio and switches to a reggaeton station. 

Ok, he's not totally deaf—just hard of hearing.

So when one of my favorite Nicky Jam songs plays, I sing along quietly in the backseat.

My driver's eyes widen in the rearview mirror and he excitedly starts speaking Spanish. I grab my phone and frantically open Google translate.

"Wait, uh…sordo?" I ask. "Deaf?"

He points to his ear and shakes his head. "No deaf," he replies. "No hablo ingles."

"Oh! Ah, no habla español."

He smiles. "But…sing?"

I try to explain that, again, I don't know Spanish, but he waves his hand and turns up the volume. He sings louder, enunciating the words so I can follow along. 

When we reach my hotel, he turns around. 

"Bienvenido a Houston," he says. He pauses, as if looking for the right words, before putting a hand on his chest. "My home."

BLUEBERRY CAKE, UMBRELLA

I prepare my equipment in the hotel room and step back to admire my work, like a kid laying their clothes out the night before the first day of school.  

Interview-ready with time to spare?

A valet attendant holds the door open as I saunter out the main entrance. 

Nice. 

It doesn't take long to lose myself in Houston's concrete corporate buildings and see-through skywalks. It also doesn't take long to get tired. My exploration ends at a cafe.

I pluck a packet of sugar from the counter, flick it twice, and tear off the top. I've done this so often, it's almost a ritual. Behind me, a man clears his throat.

"Ma'am?"

The whitewater crystals disappear into my espresso. There's no way he's talking to me.

"Don't think that little coffee there is gonna last you long."

I stand corrected.

I whip my head around and see two men in business casual on their lunch break—one looking right at me, the other fixated with the plate of pastries in front of him.

"You're not from here, are you?" says the first man. 

"You can tell?"

"You're eating alone."

A glance around the cafe shows he's not wrong. In a sea of suits, conference lanyards and corporate name tags, I stuck out. "Is that a…Houston thing?" I ask, pulling up a chair.

"Wouldn't know. We're from NOLA—New Orleans, baby," he says, patting his friend on the shoulder. "I mean we live here now, but that don't change nothing."

"No one should eat alone," his friend says, sliding me a slice of blueberry cake. "Take this. Wasn't even gonna eat it. Just got it just to get it, you know?"

I refuse at first, but realize I'm starving and accept a fork.   

"Now where'd you fly in from?" the man asks.

"Pheksks." My mouth's full of cake. I swallow and try again. "Phoenix. I'm here to see that new Vietnamese restaurant by Christine Ha."

"Vietnamese? We gotta check that place out sometime. They got the best Vietnamese Cajun food in NOLA."

"And coffee," his friend adds. "That coffee strong." 

We talk cafes and Mardi Gras and life after Katrina and jazz festivals until the friend's phone alarm goes off. It was time to part ways. 

As his friend headed to the office, the man pointed toward the escalators. 

"Let me show you something," he says. "Follow me."

He leads me to a floor with colossal windows overlooking the city. The overcast sky I arrived under was now tangled in lightning, the torrential downpour almost diagonal.

"Try to find that in Phoenix," he says.

We stand side by side in awe. From our dry vantage point we watch as people scurry across the streets, soaked in rain. I laugh to myself. Then I realize ...

That's going to be me in twenty minutes. 

"My camera equipment! I don't have an umbrella."

"Wait here," the man says. He bounds up the nearby staircase, checking every floor. For a while, he disappears, and when I see him again he's so high above me that I can only read his lips when he yells, "found it!"

The elevator doors open toward the tiniest convenience store I've ever seen. The man, still out of breath, holds out an umbrella. "Get this one."

"That one?"

"Yeah. It's small," he says. He holds it like a bat and swings. "But good enough to whoop anyone who tries to mess with you.

I grab the receipt and thank him as a clap of thunder echoes through the building. He wipes sweat from his brow and starts toward his office, taking deep breaths.

"Sorry for making you run."

"Pssh, no problem." He smiles, exhausted. "Just ah, drink some of that strong coffee for me."

He never told me just how far down the street his office was. 

As my ride headed toward the restaurant, I spot him one last time at a red light-drenched, but cooled, taking his sweet time. 

POTHOLES

The front of the car rises and crashes down with a metal bang. The blueberry cake I head earlier lurches in my stomach. 

"Another one!" my driver exclaims at no one. "Potholes … the roads are better in Mexico."

"Really?"

"You think we only have dirt roads, ah? I got back yesterday. I travel; I bring my wife. We went home to see family. There was music and food and dancing on the beach. And now," he says, sighing. "Rain. And potholes!"

"I'm sorry you had to come back to bad weather."

He looks at me. "No accent? Born here?"

"Ah, no. But I was raised here. I'm American."

"Good. No accent. They treat you better. They treat my children better."

He points to a laminated family photo taped to the dashboard. Through the glare and water stains, I make out two small, dark-haired children. 

"I come and work. They were born here, and they like it here," he says. "No accent, only English. They're big now. They have families. We stay here for them, but my wife and I go travel. They're American, but always Mexican first."

With his free hand, he takes his pointer finger and jabs the dashboard, emphasizing every word. I get the feeling his children have heard them before: 

"Where. You. Come. From. That is first. Then, you are American."

I nod and wonder what his children are up to nowadays. 

"You know how it is," he says, cursing at another pothole. "We want a better life. It was hard, but look—now, the hard work is done. I drive sometimes, earn some money. But we see Europe. Asia. We travel all the time. Where is your family from? Maybe we will go there."

I stare out the window. "I wanna travel, too."

He looks at me through the rearview mirror as he puts the car in park.  

"You? You're still young. Work hard. You have time."

THE BLIND GOAT

Bravery Chef Hall is new and unmarked. But once you find it, you’re rewarded with five restaurant concepts inhabiting the same space—The Blind Goat among them.

PHOTO: Christine Ha stands with her left hand on her hip and her other hand holding her white probing cane looking at the camera. Her dark brown hair hangs straight off her head, stopping just below her ears. She is smiling at the camera. Behind her is a counter with barstools and turquoise subway tiles that line the underside of the counter.

I recognize the station’s jade blue tiles from the vlogs and seat myself in a wicker chair by the counter, watching workers weave past each other with bundles of greens, chopped sugar canes and steam baskets. 

While waiting for Hà, I’m handed a copy of the soft opening menu and order “G.O.A.T. Curry.” It’s based on Vietnamese chicken curry, but uses goat sourced from a local ranch.

The name is a play on the restaurant’s namesake animal (Hà zodiac sign) as well as the acronym for “greatest of all time.” Served in a china bowl, it evokes an unmistakable nostalgia—this was a meal you had at your childhood friend’s house after barely making curfew.

I also jump at the opportunity to get fresh sugarcane juice, a Southeast Asian staple tinged with citrus. LaCroix could never.

As I sip, soft taps of a cane approach from behind. Hà, sporting green rubber rain boots, is led by her husband, John Suh. They check in with the staff, and when they separate, Suh retreats to a corner to work on his laptop while Hà feels her way around the counter’s perimeter until she reaches me.

“Wanna eat and talk?” Hà asks.

Way ahead of you.

Hà begins with her parents, refugees who fled Vietnam on a naval ship just one day before the fall of Saigon. She was born in Southern California and grew up in Houston, an only child who spoke Vietnamese at home.

Like many immigrants, Hà grappled with cultural identity—too Asian to be American, but too American to be Asian. She would open her lunch box in school, wishing for the same peanut butter jelly sandwiches her classmates had, only to find her mom’s home cooking instead. For a kid who just wanted to fit in, she couldn’t help but feel ashamed.

Hà was 14 when her mom died. 

She left recipes behind, and Hà returned to them to make things right, but anyone who’s tried to replicate their parents’ dishes knows it’s almost impossible. There was always something missing, like a secret ingredient lost in time. It was a while before Hà, a perfectionist, realized an exact copy wasn’t what mattered—it was keeping her mom’s memory alive. 

These were her mom’s recipes, yes, but they became Hà’s too.

PHOTO: A full spread of Vietnamese food in white and blue glassware. One plate shows eggrolls cut in half, with a small tin cup of dip and lettuce. The next plate shows the restaurant's take on apple pie. A staple that won owner Christine Há MasterChef, season 3. The next is a bowl of G.O.A.T. curry.
TRY ANYWAY

Peek at any online comment section about Hà, and you’ll find people who think she’s faking blindness because she doesn’t “look” it (whatever that means).

Hà started losing her vision in 2004 due to neuromyelitis optica, an autoimmune disorder that affects the eyes and spine. Medically, she is considered “counting fingers” blind at 10 inches in both eyes, seeing blurry fuzziness, contrasting color and shadow. 

“It’s like after you take a hot shower and look in the bathroom mirror,” she says.

As Hà lost more of her vision, she learned orientation mobility (used to teach those with visual impairments how to safely, confidently and independently move in their environment), how to use a white, probing cane and how to navigate public transportation during grad school. Nowadays she gets around with the help of her husband, a friend or rideshare apps. Since her time on “MasterChef,” people have reached out to her saying her story helped them not only with disability, but other areas of life as well, like broken relationships, losing a job or the death of a family member.

What really helped Hà through the years was a good support system and the friends and family that create that network.

“They’re not gonna try to pretend and understand what you’re going through, but they’re gonna be there to offer support, a shoulder to cry on, a lending hand, or help you read your bills when you’re losing your vision,” Hà says. “A supportive community means everything to mental wellbeing.”

She thinks about what advice she would’ve given her younger self beginning to lose vision. 

“You need to properly grieve your loss,” Hà says. “Whether it’s loss of independence, your vision, use of your limbs. You have to go through the proper motions of grief. At some point, you tell yourself that the world continues with or without you. You need to find a way to contribute to society. Whatever hand you’re dealt with, learn to play that hand to the best of your abilities. I would’ve never thought in a million years that I’d get a master's in creative writing, or go audition for ‘MasterChef’ and win, or open a restaurant.”

But Hà tried anyway.

“I learned in my 40 years of life that the greatest rewards come at the greatest risks and the greatest challenges,” she says. “People are afraid to fail, but you gotta go balls-out and do it.” 

“Even for a perfectionist like you?”

“Even for a perfectionist like me,” she laughs. “And then you learn over time that things will never be perfect. You just have to roll with the punches and adapt.”

AUTHENTIC ENOUGH

A group of fans surrounds Hà mid-interview, and I offer to take their picture. They’re ecstatic, excitedly switching between Vietnamese and English. 

“Do you know her from ‘MasterChef U.S.’ or [MasterChef] Vietnam?” I ask. 

“Both!” one says.

As they leave, Hà tells me that although there’s actually a large Vietnamese population and food scene in Houston, she wanted The Blind Goat to showcase lesser-known dishes, like street and comfort foods. 

“I lived in Houston most of my life, so I know what’s missing in the food scene,” Hà says. “And I learn more whenever I go back to Vietnam.”

In the restaurant industry, strategically executing a menu of that kind is its own challenge. Vietnamese food requires a lot of preparation, all of which is done in the confines of a 400-square-foot kitchen. For Hà, it’s an exhausting labor of love, mixing American and Asian concepts to create dishes that embody her identity and experiences. It’s a menu seen as inventive and narrative—she is a writer, after all—but also seen as inauthentic or non-traditional. 

Sometimes, the inconsistency is unintentional. In her cookbook, one of her mother’s recipes uses Coco Rico, a coconut soda. While translating it into Vietnamese, the publishing house contacted her.

“They were like, ‘I find it strange that you use Coco Rico instead of fresh coconut water’ but growing up, that’s what my mom did,” Hà says. “It’s a result of being a refugee—it’s all she could find here.” 

But for The Blind Goat, remixes are intentional.

One of Hà’s next concepts is making chips and queso. As a native Houstonian, it’s one of those ubiquitous dishes she grew up with. However, she plans to add Asian spices to the cheese and use wontons instead of tortilla chips. The result? A dish called “kê xô—” same pronunciation, just in Vietnamese. 

“Here in America, there’s so much more to what we thought there was,” Hà says about these assimilation foods. “We can celebrate differences.”

Suh, who often helps Hà invent in the kitchen, recommends I try the “Rubbish Apple Pie.” It’s the famous pie Hà made for Gordon Ramsey, reformatted to look like a rectangular McDonald’s apple pie, but with pho ingredients like ginger and star anise in place of allspice. Topped with a caramel drizzle made with fish sauce, it’s flaky, savory, sweet and sells out often.

“I’m not authentic enough for some,” Hà says. ”But I’m authentic for me.”

IMAGINE

Even with all the chaos of opening a restaurant, Hà still has personal plans. One of her smaller goals, she says, is another tattoo. Right now, she has three. 

“My very first one I got when I was 18,” she says. “I won’t even talk about what that one was.” (For those curious, it’s a Chinese character she got after a bet with a friend). 

Hà got her second one, a freehanded Japanese print, right after winning “MasterChef.” 

“Garlic, cilantro and fish sauce, which is represented by anchovies—my favorite three ingredients.”

Her third and most recent one is on her wrist: a chef’s knife to signify her love of cooking and a feather pen for her love of writing. 

But Hà has a fourth tattoo in mind, inspired by her mom.

“Her favorite song was ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon,” Hà says. “As someone who writes, someone who cooks, ‘imagine’ is a packed word.”

Imagine learning how to cook without vision.

Imagine completing a master's in creative writing.

Imagine being the first blind contestant to win “MasterChef.”

Imagine opening a restaurant in the city you love. 

“I haven’t decided what font, where or when,” Hà says, “but it’s my next one.” 

PHOTO: Christine Há is served at the bar of The Blind Goat. The photo shows an arm serving Há in the white and blue bowl.

FOILERS

My next driver picks me up at the cusp of golden hour. Reds and oranges splashed across the sky, a stunning backdrop to disgusting gridlock. 

We watch an 18-wheeler struggle with a wide turn, besieged by honking cars.

My driver scoffs as we pass by. "Guy's a newbie."

"Newbie?"

"Yep," he says. "I drove trucks. Over 40 years."

He turns to the side and I catch a glimpse of a Cochlear implant in his right ear. I hadn't received a notification about it. His eyes flash toward my equipment.

"Everything you have, everything you've ever gotten? I guarantee you it has passed through a truck," he says. "You foilers wouldn't understand, that's why you honk at us."

"Foilers? Is that what you call, like, regular cars?"

"Yeah, that's what we call y'all," he says. "Always trying to speed past us, cut us off and cause accidents. Foilers."

I feel the embers of a long frustration stoked in the twang of his voice. 

"So … how was life as a trucker?"

"You miss a lot of holidays," he says. "Christmases. Birthdays. Long days on the road. Long nights. Not everyone can handle it." He sighs, his hazel eyes catching the last of the sunset. "But … has its moments."

"Like what?"

We turn a corner. It's like he's not talking to me anymore.

"You get to see how beautiful America is," he says. "All the land. You see the coast. All the different towns, different people. You just … see it all." 

We drive in silence for a while.

"Until I got sick and couldn't do it anymore."

My driver parks and I gather my things. "Well, uh, as a foiler—thank you."

He doesn't meet my eyes. "I have to replace my batteries," he says into the empty air. "I can't hear your voice."

NO WORDS, YET

I wipe the condensation off my hotel room window to see a drowsy grey sky, the one I saw when I first touched down in Houston. 

My last driver pulls up and I see him glance at my destination.

"Are you flying out?" he asks softly.

"Yeah, I was here for work."

"Wait, you understand me? Quickly?"

"I mean, you have an accent, but pretty much. Why do you ask?"

As we reach the freeway, my driver explains: He had come to Texas from the Republic of Congo to earn his Ph.D. in oil and petroleum engineering. A native French speaker, he had spent the past year only talking to his roommate, who was honestly over it.

"You need to practice English," his roommate said. "You live here now."

However, his roommate wasn't the best teacher and often made fun of grammar or spelling mistakes, so he figured he'd practice English while on the road.

As he'd drive people around, he'd ask about family, about politics, about living in the states—whatever he could glean from the small conversations in the back seat. At night he'd go back to his roommate and practice phrases he'd eavesdropped from riders. He even practiced the classic Texan "howdy," and was pleased with himself the few times he got it right.

"Not a lot of people understand me or my accent," he says. "Some try … and some do not."

He recalls a time when a young couple got into his car during his first months on the job. They had exchanged pleasantries, and introduced themselves as academics. My driver learned that the woman, specifically, was a professor in the same field as him. 

Excited, he tried his best to tell them how he was studying in the U.S., of all the work he's done and engineering studies he had read. Perhaps they could share knowledge about the industry or how it differs from one country to the next. 

Just as he was getting into his research, the husband lightly put a hand on his shoulder.

"Hey, buddy, just stick to driving, ok? Thanks."

While my driver was talking about his life's work, the couple had tuned out. They told him they were too tired to understand. The language barrier was a soundproof glass wall. 

"I do not think they knew what I was trying to say," he says. "If she knew, if I could talk to them as well as I talk to my colleagues back home, it might have been different."

He was a decorated student, with skill and merit and talent. But all he was to Americans, he realized, was a foreign man struggling with his words.

"I lecture about these concepts in French," he says. "What takes me minutes to explain in French takes hours in English."

His English, he says, is much better now, but not where he wants it to be. But for every condescending, dismissive person, there's always one who's patient and willing to understand—or at least try to.

He drops me off at my terminal.

"I do not have all the words I need, but I will. I will be here for a while," he says. "Maybe when you come back, I will speak even better than you, no?"

I laugh, and he begins to drive off. 

I hope so.

WELCOME HOME

Once the plane makes contact with the Arizona tarmac, a familiar dry heat creeps through the cabin. Visitors start complaining, but the locals shrug.

I wasn't born in Arizona—I wasn't even born in America—but after spending years in this desert state, it's home to me.

I thought of Christine Hà navigating through Houston, and all the drivers and people I happened to meet who call it home, just like she does.

The concept of home, where it is, or who it belongs to is hotly debated now more than ever. But home isn't a debate topic. Home is the meals you make with whatever's on hand, enjoyed with whoever's around. It's memories and conversations, regardless of broken words or loose ends. It's never perfect, and the best part about it is that it never has to be.

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Aitana Yvette Mallari
Writer
Aitana Yvette Mallari is an online media journalist who runs on caffeine and WiFi. She’s lived in the Middle East, Asia, and both coasts of the U.S. and writes about health, tech, and amazing people doing amazing things. She is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and probably has a deadline to get to.

Read more by Aitana Yvette Mallari.

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