A visit to the Clay Pot in its new location at 416 Franklin Ave. is as much a visual adventure as it is a cultural dining experience.
The patio at the back of the restaurant stands in stark contrast to the lively downtown Waco area and the busy street in front of the establishment.
Anchoring the serene patio space is a white marble fountain shaped like a fierce-looking dragon. But co-owner of the restaurant, Thanh Le, says not to worry. The dragon is benevolent — a symbol of power, strength, longevity and goodness in her birth country of Vietnam.
With the help of friends in 2016, Thanh commissioned artists in Da Nang, Vietnam, to create the dragon, which is sculpted from one piece of marble, and which she estimates to weigh about 20,000 pounds. Marble benches and lanterns from the same artists sit at each end of the fountain. An additional clay dragon, which the owners hope to install at the restaurant, is in storage for the time being.
Overlooking the dragon fountain on the patio is a colorful, 400-tile mural on one wall of the building. It depicts a Vietnamese landscape of rice fields and grass-roof houses. Thanh, who commissioned the mural with an artist in Hanoi, said she wanted to show life as it was in Vietnam “back then.” Never mind that “back then” to the young woman was the 1980s.
All the artistic items were installed on the new patio when the Clay Pot moved last October from its former location on Interstate 35 to downtown.
Thanh and her husband, Phong Le, who co-own the restaurant, have booked several birthday parties on the patio, which can accommodate about 80 people. They hope to include other events, such as wedding receptions and live music.
Inside the restaurant, the food is as much a cultural experience as the decorations on the patio and those hanging on the walls. Cuisine styles range from the north of the country to the south, with dishes that are typical in all sections of Vietnam.
Exotic names spill across the menu — Bun Thit Nuong (grilled pork with vermicelli), Bun Xao Bo (stir-fried beef with vermicelli) and pho (traditional Vietnamese soup). At least three specialty rice noodle soups outline the geography of the country. Bun Ca Cay is from Hai Phong, Thanh’s hometown in the north. Bun Bo comes from Hue in the central section, and Bun Moc takes its flavors from Saigon in the south.
Bun Met is listed on the menu as “a blast from Vietnam’s past.” It includes two meat or tofu items on leaf lettuce with herbs and a fish sauce and is served on a traditional thin basket.
“Villages used baskets to plate a lot of things,” Thanh said.
Thanh travels to her birth country almost every two years and stays current on what’s happening in the food scene there. She said it has once more become a “trend” in Vietnam to serve food the old way — on baskets.
Though the Clay Pot offers a wide variety of specialties among its 50-plus items, perhaps the most popular dish and certainly the most time-consuming is the Pho soup. It takes eight to 10 hours to cook the broth itself.
“It’s a well-known Vietnamese food,” Thanh said. “When (people) talk about a Vietnamese restaurant, they talk about the beef noodle soup (Pho).”
The versatility of Pho may contribute to its renown. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner or as a nighttime snack.
Another dish in demand by customers is the Clay Pot, a concoction of a choice of meats sautéed and blended with broccoli and carrot in a slightly sweet herb sauce, all on a bed of rice. Of course, it’s served in a traditional clay pot — the inspiration for the restaurant’s name.
Vegan dishes are also on the menu; some of the Clay Pot staff are vegan who can explain the options to customers.
An addition to the menu in the Franklin location is the Hot Pot (Lau), a family and friends group meal, somewhat like fondue, with the meat cooked by the customers at the table.
Though the restaurant serves some dessert drinks — bubble tea, smoothies and an iced coffee float — the owners hope to add Vietnamese pudding to the menu. Bubble tea is made by adding tapioca balls to the tea, a combination that Thanh says “makes it interesting.”
New to the restaurant this year will be a 10-course fine-dining meal on Feb. 19 to celebrate the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Though this is Thanh’s first time to host such an event, she’s attended a few of them and hopes to replicate those experiences. She wants to make it “a theme party where people dress Asian,” she said.
Tickets will be required for the party since seated is limited. Details will be announced on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Diners inside the restaurant can enjoy interesting decorations as they eat —V ietnamese musical instruments, a shoulder carrying pole with baskets, a wooden map of the country, a drum on a stand and Asian-themed paintings by local artists.
Though both owners were born in Vietnam, they come from different areas. Phong was born in Vung Tau in the south and escaped the country with his parents and siblings in 1975. The family came to Waco and established restaurants here. His mother, Ly Le, had a restaurant that was named after her and was later renamed the Clay Pot. She also owned a steak house at one point.
Thanh came to Waco in 2003 at the age of 19 after marrying Phong, and they now have two children. When she was growing up in Hai Phong, her family had cooked in the usual family style. But she credits her mother-in-law with teaching her the elements of cooking techniques.
“She was a great cook,” Thanh said.
The clientele of the former Clay Pot location on I-35 consisted mostly of Baylor students, staff and faculty as well as travelers on the interstate. Now, Thanh says, the customer base is different and includes workers from downtown offices and visitors to the Magnolia Market at the Silos as well as Baylor people.
Both restaurant owners appreciate the city of Waco, from which Phong has never wanted to move.
“I love it here. It’s a really nice city,” Thanh said. She credits the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and the city with helping them greatly in their business.
“That’s why I want to create a restaurant that can be a remarkable place for Waco,” she said.
416 Franklin Ave.
Tue-Sat, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Orders can be made online
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