Soon-to-Open Heights Restaurant Will Serve Japanese-Style Sandwiches

Vuji Cafe's negitoro sando

Japanese-style sandwiches, more commonly known as sandos (or sandōs), have been showing up on more Houston-area menus lately. Money Cat serves an appropriately “bigger in Texas” Chicken Katsu Sando, while Ginger Kale offers a more traditional Tamago Sando Sandwich stuffed with a light, delicately flavored egg salad. It makes sense that an eatery specializing in expanding the potential of the sando structure would open up in the city someday. 

Ian So, formerly of halal spot The Chicken and Rice Guys, and business partner Tristan Nguyen have partnered with chef Kevin Villanueva for upcoming sando restaurant Vuji Cafe. Located in Lowell Street Market in the Heights, the owners will be taking over the former Teapresso Bar home at 718 West 18th. They anticipate an official opening on May 13, with a soft opening the week before. 

Vuji Cafe’s dặc biệt sando. Courtesy photo.

“[Nguyen’s] a CPA. We’ve been friends for a while, and we’ve always wanted to start a business together. He said he always wanted to open a coffee shop. That’s his dream,” So says. “Originally, we were going to do a coffee shop/Vietnamese sandwich shop. When we went around trying all the bánh mì, we found that we couldn’t really make a better version.” 

The team encountered sandos (drop the second “s” if you want to be more aligned with the original Japanese) while studying Houston’s sandwich scene. In Japan, sandos are sandwiches (the word “sando” is derived directly from “sandwich”) typically served between slices of velvety-soft shokupan, or milk bread, often with the crust removed. They’re easy to make at home, and can also be found in cafés, convenience stores and vending machines, with fillings such as chicken or pork katsu, egg salad, tuna salad and cold cuts. Anyone who follows foodies on Instagram or TikTok has likely seen photogenic fruit sandos made with whipped cream and jewel-like kiwis, oranges and berries.   

Vuji Cafe’s team plans to take the base concept of the sando and explore its possibilities through a uniquely diverse Houston lens.

“I think there’s a very traditional definition of ‘sandos’. We’re trying to go for this Texas-Asian sando theme, which is not quite traditional Japanese sandos, but more bringing together different cultures, which is what Houston does,” So says. 

Vuji Cafe’s salted duck egg salad with yuzu century eggs. Courtesy photo.

As such, the menu highlights what So describes as “Pan-Asian” flavors, including sandos with dặc biệt (Vietnamese cold cuts) and herbs, galbi (Korean short ribs) with kimchi, cheese, corn and Thai chili, negitoro (minced tuna) with salmon eggs and cucumber, and salted duck egg salad with yuzu century eggs. On the sweeter side, diners can select an ube, pandan, marshmallow and strawberry sando which takes inspiration from the classic fruit sando fillings. 

Big flavors require a bigger base than shokupan’s fluffier, more delicate texture. So, Nguyen and Villanueva opted for Texas toast to bring everything together.

“It’s a little bit thicker, but it’s able to blend all of the flavors really well. The flavors are really bold and need a stronger bread,” So noted. 

The choice thematically ties back in with Vuji’s vision of reflecting the city’s expansive cultural heritage: bread as thick as Texas pride embracing the numerous East and Southeast Asian heritages found in Houston. So continues to operate a portfolio of four restaurants and six food trucks in Boston, but he moved to the Space City in 2019 and has no plans to leave — in large part because of everything there is to learn, not to mention, eat.  

“I love Houston. I love it here,” So says. “I love the food scene. It’s different. It’s the most diverse city in America.”

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