By Molly Dunn
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The sensational seafood salad at Jackie Tan Restaurant on Bellaire featured cold shrimp and crunchy jellyfish slivers tossed with shredded pork, cilantro, fresh mint, scallions, onions and a spicy fish sauce dressing. It was served over romaine leaves with hot-out-of-the-fryer shrimp chips on the side.
My favorite Vietnamese restaurant used to be the late, great A Dong on Bellaire. I have never had a seafood salad better than the "Summer Delight" I used to get there — until I discovered this one at Jackie Tan. Sure, the salad at A Dong was a little bigger and served over watercress, but it didn't come with fresh-fried shrimp chips. So let's call it a tie.
Fried egg rolls: $6 Salt toasted shrimp: $10 Shrimp salad: $11 Bo luc lac: $12 Softshell crab: $20
The other dish I always ate at A Dong was the salt-toasted cuttlefish. Close your eyes and try some of Jackie Tan's salt-toasted squid — I am betting you won't be able to tell the difference. I also tried Jackie Tan's salt-toasted tofu, which I highly recommend for vegetarians. (My meat-loving friends declared it boring.) And then there was the salt-toasted shrimp.
The shrimp were battered and fried in the shell. Asians often eat their shrimp "shell and all" because it' s a good source of calcium in a diet devoid of dairy. The shells are thin and they taste pretty good, if you ask me. But one of my lunch mates started coughing after getting a piece of shell caught in her throat. She proceeded to peel the rest of her shrimp, discarding all the crunchy spicy crust. I think it's a better idea to just skip the dish if you object to the shells.
A bowl of curly egg noodles with sliced brisket and wontons came with lots of chewy noodles in a dark brown beef broth that tasted like it was spiked with cinnamon and garlic. It was tasty, but paled in comparison with the seafood.
At lunch that day, we also ate a spectacular version of the Vietnamese filet mignon salad called bo luc lac. The salad greens weren't all that impressive, but the medium rare beef tenderloin chunks were fabulous. I am guessing that it was the unbeatable combination of garlic and MSG that made the tenderloin taste extra good.
I used to think of Hong Kong City Mall as the western edge of Bellaire Chinatown, but not anymore. One day, while I was driving down Bellaire between Synott and Dairy Ashford, I noticed an enormous building with two square Chinese-looking towers on top of it. It looked like a fortress along the Great Wall of China. I wondered if it was a temple or something. The letters on the front of the place just said "Jackie Tan." I pulled over to check it out. The glass doors were open, so I went in.
My jaw fell slack and my eyes popped out when I realized that I had just entered a gigantic Chinese restaurant. The place was brand new and squeaky clean. There was a main dining room, two outer dining rooms and several walk-up bars. The ceilings were so high and the floor space so massive that it felt like an auditorium. An eight-foot Buddha stood on top of the main counter holding up a pot of gold. Seven big-screen televisions lined the walls of the outer dining rooms. I tried to count the seats. I gave up at 300.
Dumbfounded, I sat down and asked for a menu. I was handed a thick document of a dozen pages or so that listed hundreds of dishes. I asked the waitress who Jackie Tan was. She said he was a Houston restaurateur who also owned Tan Tan restaurant, which is one of my favorite noodle shops.
So I ordered my favorite dish from Tan Tan, the curly rice noodle soup with barbecued pork and wontons called mi hoanh thanh. The soup tasted just like Tan Tan's. While I ate it, I looked over the massive menu.
The dishes weren't as refined (or as pricey) as the Hong Kong-style delicacies at Fung's Kitchen. There were pages of noodle dishes, a myriad of fried rice dishes and lots of Vietnamese salads and seafood plates. Quickly prepared and inexpensive stuff, it was classic "Asian diner" fare.
Unfortunately, the Pei Wei Asian Diner chain has ruined our understanding of that term. Pei Wei is the low-end subsidiary of P. F. Chang's. I tried to eat lunch there once — and found the syrupy sweet "Asian chopped chicken salad" inedible. Obviously, Pei Wei Asian Diner caters to the blandest mainstream American tastes.
Jackie Tan is an Asian diner for Asians. How can you tell? There are fried intestines on the appetizer menu and none of the waitstaff speaks English. English-speakers have to point to the menu or order by the numbers.
The menu translations are a little bit fuzzy, too. So allow me to make a few appetizer suggestions. The cold shrimp and pork spring rolls with peanut dipping sauce are excellent.
Skip the insipid fried dumplings and the awful fried wontons. Instead, get the "fried egg rolls." These are served Vietnamese style with fresh herbs, cucumbers and Romaine leaves so you can wrap up the hot rolls into cold lettuce and herb packets and dunk them in dipping sauce. And don't miss the vaguely named "shrimp special salad" on the first page of the menu. It is the aforementioned shrimp and jellyfish salad.
On a lark one night, I ordered the fried intestines as an appetizer. You don't see this on the menu at Pei Wei Asian Diner, I said to my dinner companions. I expected them to be shocked.
But the intestines were fried very crispy and tossed with pickled cabbage. And my guests, who were both born and raised in Europe, loved offal. I may have ordered them as a joke, but we ended up fighting over the little crunchy rings of fried guts.
A dish of fresh snow pea shoots, quickly sautéed with garlic, was as simple as it was exceptional. We also got panfried wide rice noodles topped with pork, al dente Chinese broccoli and brown sauce.
I loved the flavor and crunchy texture of this fried noodle dish. It's one of the few dishes that make gloppy Chinese brown sauce taste good. But it's a real challenge to cut up the Frisbee-like disk of crunchy noodles without getting food everywhere. So I asked the waiter to cut the noodles into four portions when he delivered them.
The best thing I ate in four visits to Jackie Tan was crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-in-the-middle, deep-fried softshell crab pieces served over a cold mixture of chopped scallions, herbs and hellaciously hot sliced green chiles. I suggest you hurry up and try this terrific seafood dish while softshell crabs are still in season.
I searched the menu for softshell crabs. I never did find them. Luckily, the waiter understood what I was asking for and pointed them out. And that's the problem here.
The menu at Jackie Tan's is too big and there are too many boring fried wontons, fried rice and gloppy brown sauce dishes lying in wait for the unwary. You have to take your time and study the phone book of a menu, ask for help from the waiter and hold out for greatness. If you really try, you can get some stellar food here. You might also fall in love with some things — like fried intestines — that you have never had before.
Houston has never seen an Asian restaurant quite like this. It's huge, it's inexpensive and it's fun. Call it an oversized Asian diner or a noodle house on steroids; whatever you call it, Jackie Tan is defining the new frontier in Bellaire Chinatown.