By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
There's an oversize xiu maibetween my teeth, and it's too hot to eat. I made a greedy grab for the cylindrical pork dumpling the second it hit the table and popped it straight into my mouth. Everybody else at the table is daintily cutting the dumplings in half and waiting for them to cool. I wish I had been that smart. I also wish I could try a bite of the shrimp dumplings we just got. The cart driver is passing over a plate of slippery rice noodles that I can't wait to slurp, too. But for the time being, all I can do is sit here with steamy breath and an idiot's grin.
Ai Hoa, out on Wilcrest near Bellaire, is an enormous Chinese restaurant. Judging by the black lights in a high part of the ceiling and the elevated stage area underneath them, I'd guess it used to be a nightclub. The place is now decorated with lots of dragons and divided into a couple of big dining rooms. Don't make the mistake of going there for lunch or dinner, when they serve a sorry buffet with too many crinkle-cut french fries, battered onion rings, chicken fingers and other frozen dreck. But on Saturday and Sunday, this is the best spot in the city for dim sum. At least for the time being.
The former title holder, Shanghai Restaurant, has been suffering through a long bout of soggy dumplings and diminishing business. The demise of its influential neighbor, the once-famous Imperial Chinese Restaurant, has contributed to a general loss of buzz at the Diho Square Shopping Center in the 9100 block of Bellaire. A steamy competition has been in progress for some months now among possible successors to the dim sum throne. Until recently, Treasure Island Chinese Restaurant in the 9600 block of Bellaire appeared to have the edge. While the food reportedly was excellent, patrons complained that the restaurant was too small and that you had to get on the waiting list by 11 a.m. on Sunday to have a prayer of getting a table.
Ai HoaShrimp dumplings: $2.60
Xiu mai: $2.60
Fried taro puff: $1.80
Ai Hoa was brought to my attention in an e-mail from Dr. Larry Katz, a Medical Center psychologist. Katz and a friend of his, Dr. David Chiu, a neurologist, are dim sum addicts. Katz picked up his habit while living in San Francisco. Chiu, a Taiwanese-American, experienced cravings shortly after birth. Following a carefully conducted scientific sampling of dim sum emporiums in Houston, the two selected Ai Hoa the hands-down winner. "It's better than Treasure Island and bigger too, so you don't have to wait. But you should still get there before 11:30 for the best selection," Katz advised me over the phone.
The steaming xiu mai is finally cool enough to chew, and I'm ready to get back into the fray. It's one of the biggest xiu mai I've ever eaten, and it has a light, fluffy texture. There are some pork ribs cooked in five-spice powder and wrapped in a paper pouch that the waitress is snipping open, and some seaweed-covered shrimp rolls that I must try. I have assembled my own panel of dim sum experts, who are eating up all the good stuff. Dining companion Jay Francis is gesturing wildly at a waitress, trying to get more tea.
"When you want more tea, just leave the lid on the pot open," the waitress advises. That's a useful tip. When the tea is poured, several people knock on the table. The waitress smiles and bows. Rapping your knuckles is a way to say thank you in Chinese. Robin Luo of the China View restaurant passed along the background story. Once there was a Chinese emperor who liked to disguise himself in the clothing of a commoner and go out into the kingdom. His guards came along, but they kept giving him away by bowing all the time. So he told them that when they had the urge to kowtow, they should just knock instead. And hence rapping your knuckles became a substitute for bowing when seated at a table. It's also very handy when your mouth is full of xiu mai.
The five-spice ribs are tender, a little sweet and very aromatic, with that distinctive blend of cinnamon, clove, fennel, anise and pepper. The rice noodle rolls are fresh and slippery, the dumplings are very hot but not soggy, and there is a staggering selection of dishes so far. In fact, the roving carts of goodies are almost too efficient. Within minutes of our being seated, three carts had already loaded us up with little covered dishes. "Pace yourself," I suggest, as another cart swoops down loaded with fried taro puffs. But my friends are already pointing enthusiastically. "Well, maybe just a couple of orders," I mumble to no effect.
The puffs are covered with a golden crunchy crust, and the pork and taro form an exotic sort of pudding inside. "My friends the Gleasons rate dim sum restaurants by how many times the chicken feet cart comes by," Francis says. "If they keep pushing chicken feet, it means the kitchen isn't keeping up the pace." So far we haven't seen any chicken feet at all. But we do get an order of lotus leaf wraps that are stuffed with sticky rice, Chinese sausage, ginger, mushrooms and oyster sauce.