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By Eating Our Words
The jellyfish is nice and crunchy. Long slices of the transparent sea creature are marinated in a rice vinegar dressing with lots of fresh ginger.
"Too salty," Jay Francis says dismissively, about the $3.95 cold jellyfish salad.
"I like salty," I protest.
"Try this double spicy chicken!" he insists. I have to admit, the double spicy chicken is fabulous. It's coated with an oily reddish sauce that looks like it's made from Chinese chili oil and dried red chili flakes. Double spicy chicken ($6.95) is the main reason to come to T&K Chinese Restaurant, Francis says.
"The great thing about this chicken is that it's not cooked a second longer than necessary," Francis muses, with a bit of chicken between his chopsticks. "Unfortunately it's a little oily."
"I like oily," I protest again.
As the chopsticks fly, Francis's clothing falls victim to his enthusiasm. Some of the oily red sauce ends up on his white dress shirt. He laughs when he sees the stain. "They make jokes about me at work because I always come back from lunch with a stain on my shirt. I'm an expert at food stains. I carry two different types of Shout. The gel with the scraping nozzle is best for Indian food; the turmeric is really hard to get out. The spray kind works for everything else. What I really need is a lobster bib."
I order panfried noodles ($8.95), which turn out to be reconstituted dry noodles topped with cornstarch-coated vegetables; the dish is a big disappointment.
"We should have gone with the beef with Chinese cabbage," Francis says. Next time I will know better. When Jay Francis is leading the tour, let him do the ordering.
T&K is a nondescript Chinese restaurant located in the Diho Square shopping center on Bellaire Boulevard. With its dark furniture, white tablecloths and Buddha figurine on the cash-register counter, it looks like a hundred other medium-priced Chinese restaurants in this city. There are seven Asian restaurants in Diho Square, which is often confused with Diho Plaza, a few blocks further down Bellaire, home to even more restaurants. There are so many Asian restaurants on this stretch of Bellaire, it's hard to sort the winners from the losers. This is the self-appointed task of Jay Francis.
Born and raised in Houston, Francis, 49, is eager to show anyone who's interested just how amazing this city's ethnic food scene really is. Francis works as an application engineer for Goulds Pumps, a manufacturer of water-treatment equipment. Scouting the neighborhoods of Houston for good food has been his hobby and obsession for more than a decade. As a Christmas present a few years back, he handed out a compact guidebook he had written with descriptions of 85 of his favorite ethnic restaurants. Within a week of my employment at the Houston Press, somebody e-mailed me an electronic copy of this little gem, which circulates on the Internet.
You could say that Francis is king of the local foodies -- for this year anyway. In May he was elected to a one-year term as president of Houston Culinary Historians, a group of 35 to 40 food lovers who get together once a month to hear invited speakers lecture on gastronomic topics, compare notes on cooking and eat. The theme for the September meeting will be "How I Ate My Summer Vacation."
"The first Culinary Historian group was founded in Boston about 18 years ago in affiliation with the Schlesinger Library," Francis tells me. Around 15 years ago, a food writer named Alice Arndt, who was familiar with the Boston bunch, got together with Cathleen Baird, archivist for the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, and foodie Martha Taylor, and together they started up a Houston Culinary Historians group. There are organizations by the same name in New York, Chicago, Austin, Toronto, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, although they don't really have anything to do with each other. There is no national organization.
"How did you get interested in food?" I ask.
"My mom was a terrible cook. And when I was in junior high, she went back to work teaching. So I took over cooking for myself. By the time I got to college, I was pretty good. Then when I was 20, I took a semester off and traveled through France, Spain, northern Africa and Italy. That got me really interested in ethnic cuisines around the world."
In addition to his duties as commander in chief of the food-history troops, Francis leads the charge for the Orange Show Foundation's Eye-Openers Tours of Houston. Earlier this year he led a tour of ethnic food markets. Next year he plans to guide a group through Houston's food factories, including some egg roll and fortune-cookie plants. In fact, if you'd like to arrange a private culinary tour for a small group, Francis can do that, too.
I ask him about his methodology. There are too many restaurants to try them all, so how does he pick a place? "Why did you decide to try T&K Chinese Restaurant, for instance?" I ask.
He points out that T&K is located between Shanghai Restaurant, long a favorite among the Chinese community for dim sum, and the once famous Imperial Restaurant. The Imperial was incredible, he tells me. It had chefs from four different Chinese provinces. "I figured a Chinese restaurant a couple of doors away from those two places must have something going for it to stay in business," Francis says. "But I also rely a lot on my Chinese friends."
"So what happened to Imperial Restaurant?" I wonder, since the place looks closed.
"I think I heard that an off-duty Houston police officer got shot during a wedding party there. After that, the restaurant went through a lot of changes, and then it went out of business," he says.
"How is the Shanghai Restaurant next door?" I ask him. "I heard they have great dim sum."
"It used to be about the best dim sum around, but it's not as good anymore. The dumplings are soggy, and the selection isn't great. I don't know what happened."
"Any other tour stops in this neighborhood?"
"If you like dumplings, don't miss Santong Snacks [9384 Bellaire, (713)271-3945] in the Diho Plaza shopping center just down the street. I just had lunch there the other day, and it was fabulous. The place specializes in dumplings from a certain part of China. They are pork and cabbage dumplings, and they're always fresh. An order of 12 dumplings is $3.75. They also make a wonderful noodle soup; they make the noodles with the same fresh dough they use for the dumplings. I always get the roast beef noodle soup with homemade flat noodles and Chinese cabbage. A small bowl is $3.50, and -- get this -- the large bowl is $3.75!" Francis chuckles.
"I go with a Chinese friend of mine who also gets the pickled cucumber and pig's ear appetizer. The pig's ear is cut into slivers, and it tastes a lot like jellyfish. But the best part is, after lunch, you can buy a dozen frozen dumplings to take with you. They're the same price, $3.75. You just take them home and throw them in boiling water. When they float, they're ready to eat.
"And if you want to do some serious Asian food shopping, head further down Bellaire to the Hong Kong City Market out past Beltway 8. You won't believe the selection there."
At the next table, the waiter has delivered something that catches Francis's interest. He goes over to the table and chats with two Chinese men seated there.
"Do you speak any Chinese?" I ask when he gets back.
"No, I wish I did. Luckily that guy spoke pretty good English. One time I came in here, and there were four people at the table next to me who had some really interesting dishes, including a stew served with one of those Sterno warmers, just like that one," Francis says, pointing at the stewpot sitting on the table he just visited. "When I asked the waiter what the dish was, he said, 'That is for Chinese people only. You won't like it.' I always wondered what it was. And I just found out."
"So what was it?"
"Pig intestine stew," he says with a shy smile. We both know we should be broad-minded and give it a try, but neither one of us is very eager.
Sometimes you gotta trust the waiter.
For information on how to join Houston Culinary Historians, call Jay Francis at (281)504-6382. For information on the Eye-Openers Tours of Houston, call the Orange Show Foundation at (713)926-6368.