Killer Dragon

A new chef and a revamped space breathe new fire into Dragon Bowl.

 See more of Dragon Bowl's casually cool dining room and pan-Asian dishes in our slideshow.

Poring over the new menu at Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro on a recent Friday night, I was stunned to see options at the Heights hangout such as a Third Coast hand roll with crispy fried oysters and jalapeño relish, and a crispy duck curry with a confit of leg in a Thai-style red curry. When I'd heard that Michael dei Maggi — former chef-owner at The Rockwood Room and most recently of the now-closed Caffe Bello — had been hired by Dragon Bowl's owner Ken Bridges to revamp the menu at the low-key, pan-Asian bistro, I hadn't known what to expect. And now I knew.

My dining companion and I took advantage of the happy hour pricing to try one of the most attractive-looking new menu items, choosing two pork belly buns for $6. What came out could have been a meal on its own, and for a while, the buns completely distracted us from reading the rest of the menu.

The WASP-y Kennedy Hand Roll showcases a large piece of tempura-battered lobster.
Theo Sanchez
The WASP-y Kennedy Hand Roll showcases a large piece of tempura-battered lobster.

Location Info


Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro

1221 W. 11th St.
Houston, TX 77008

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Heights


Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Kennedy Hand Roll: $7
Pork belly buns: $7
Thai corn cakes: $7
Third Coast hand roll: $6
Salmon skin hand roll: $6
Hippie fried rice: $9
Commander Ken's chicken: $10
Crispy duck curry: $15
S'mortune cookie: $5

SLIDESHOW: Dragon Bowl: Pan-Asian and Casually Cool
BLOG POST: Dropping Benjamins at Dragon Bowl

Inside the fluffy white mantou, which most people will recognize as the buns that normally accompany Peking duck, was a thick stump of pork belly that jiggled with fatty promise as our waiter set the dishes down on the table. The pork belly was fully encased on one edge with a husky strip of cracklin', the pork skin bubbly and crisp and demanding to be eaten deliberately. There is a skill involved in getting the right ratio of cracklin' to pork belly in your mouth at the same time, after all.

In near silence, we ate the pillowy bun wrapped around juicy pork and crunchy skin, the salty-slick taste met by bites of scallion and sweet plum sauce that I dragged the bun through before each bite.

"Now I know what dei Maggi is doing here," I said to my friend as we finished. And after that, I zeroed in on the hand rolls that occupy their own piece of real estate on the menu, many of them a bargain at $6. The man could do a pork bun, but could he do sushi rice?

The answer was also a strong "yes." That Third Coast roll and a salmon skin hand roll arrived cheekily set in red, Tiki-style cocktail glasses, a nod to the more modern and playful direction of the revamped restaurant.

A salmon skin roll is nothing new on a sushi menu, but here it's further developed, with marinated salmon belly tucked into the roll alongside crispy fried strips of salmon skin that look like soft-shell crab legs sticking out all akimbo, its spiciness and glorious fattiness tempered by sweetly vegetal watercress and well-vinegared rice.

The Third Coast roll was even more of a hit, with a fat Gulf oyster breaded and fried oh-so-lightly and occupying almost the entire length of the hand roll. A punchy jalapeño relish inside oozed out of the bottom like ice cream out of a cone as I crunched through the oyster and the Napa cabbage in fast pursuit of it. And like a little kid eating an ice cream cone, I was devastated when it was gone.

Then again, it was only $6. Which means I can look forward to many more of these treats without destroying my budget.

Those $6 hand rolls are key at Dragon Bowl. When owner Ken Bridges initially opened the restaurant in 2006, it was his aim to create what my friends and I refer to as a "useful restaurant." A useful restaurant offers solidly good food at affordable prices in a convenient and cozy location. Simple as that. And for a few years, Bridges accomplished this goal while also running his Pink's Pizza locations and opening a new restaurant down the street, Lola.

Then, Dragon Bowl started to slip downhill. It had never been the "best" of anything, really, but it had consistently good items on its pan-Asian menu, like fried rice, pad Thai and bulgogi. It had always done a brisk to-go business on its busy corner in the Heights, but the food was slowly creeping into mediocre territory.

Bridges had to make a decision: give up the ghost completely and sell the restaurant, or fully reinvest in the place and rebuild it, Six Million Dollar Man-style, into something better than it was before — better, stronger, faster. Luckily, he chose the latter option and began shopping around town for a bona-fide chef to head up his operation.

He found that chef in Michael dei Maggi, a man who's seen a tumble from grace as owner of swank steakhouse Rockwood Room, which closed unexpectedly last year. After that he went to work for Tony Vallone at Caffe Bello, but they parted ways over the doomed direction of the restaurant, which itself recently closed. While some may rightly question dei Maggi's track record and his ultimate fit with Bridges and Dragon Bowl, it's difficult to question his impact on the menu here.

Witness that duck leg confit in a viscous red curry with piney, citrusy swirls from galangal in the broth, sweetness from an abundance of red and yellow bell peppers, and a single, fat leg lazing in the middle of it all with dark, dusky, tender flesh that parts seemingly with a look, no knife required. Or the easily constructed sushi rolls with soft pats of vinegared-rice underneath generous cuts of fish. Neither the rice nor the fish are served cold, a fact I relished while letting some buttery slices of escolar slip down my throat like the forbidden treat they are.

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For years, I lived around the corner from Dragon Bowl but never bothered to try it. Now, I live miles away but got a group of friends to venture over because of this review. I am sad to say that, though we were glad we gave a "new" place a try, we were generally disappointed.

Before I go on, I'll put a disclaimer that I hope my comments will be helpful and as unbiased as possible. I am a native Houstonian of Chinese descent who loves culinary arts. I also freelance as an occasional mystery shopper so I have a bit of experience evaluating eateries.

We arrived on a Wednesday evening just after 7pm. The small dining room was packed but a waiter quickly addressed us and helped us figure out a spot for our group of six. He ended up being our waiter for the evening and did a great job, despite some confusion about offering us happy hour choices, then reneging on it.

Now the important things...the food. 1. Pork belly bun (as recommended in the review): pretty disappointing. First, it is an incredibly overpriced menu item, even for the Inner Loop. It consisted of ONE "bought frozen" bun, two bite-sized pieces of pork belly, a garnish and a smear of hoisin-based sauce. Positive? The pork was very well-seasoned and had a decent crunch to the skin. But again, the bun was a standard frozen bun easily purchased in a Chinese grocery store. It would have been alright if not for the fact that it was served...cold. They needed to steam it right before service, otherwise it reads as we received it---bland, dry and a tad grainy.

2. Szechuan ribs appetizer: best thing we had all night. It was a huge portion of spareribs for an $8 appetizer, about 6-7 in total. They could be a meal in themselves. They were cooked perfectly to nearly fall off the bone. The glaze was slightly sweet and tangy with a spicy kick at the end.

3. Various handrolls: not pleasant. The salmon was not a good quality (little fat) and seemed a bit mealy. The salmon skin was not crunchy but chewy. The nori, too, was not light & crunchy but, instead, soggy and chewy. Perhaps this was because it sat out too long waiting to be delivered to the table? We didn't feel our service was slow so did the kitchen prepare too soon? (sidebar: the patrons at a neighboring table got agitated because their orders were taking an excessively long time to arrive. the waiter brought them some edamames to snack on during the wait.)

4. Various noodle bowls: average. The portions are huge, enough for 2 if eating appetizers. All three bowls we ordered were over-sauced, overpowering the other ingredients. My Super Udon Bowl had nice fresh veggies but the snow peas were not prepped properly (left on the tough vein). The tofu was good but the shrimp were 1 inch popcorn-sized shrimp. I asked for extra spicy and it came perfectly spiced, albeit a bit sour...not sure what that's about. I don't remember the names of the bowls my friends ordered but they both said the sauces were too sweet.

The venue had a nice comfy feel but it was way too crowded. They need to remove one or two small tables.

Sadly, this is not a place any of us want to revisit, despite our clamor for decent Asian food in the Heights. I remember sitting there thinking, as the only table of Asians in the place, that I hope other diners aren't looking at us and saying, "Gee, even Asians eat here so it must be good." Don't make that mistake. Forgo the ambiance and drive out to Chinatown.


We always liked Dragon Bowl when it was a plain ol' useful restaurant. We've been recently at lunch, and it was wait service, not counter service. S-L-O-W wait service by servers who seemed to be overwhelmed with too many tasks (greeting, seating, taking orders, bringing drinks, clearing tables, taking counter orders, running checks back & forth AND taking them at the counter, etc.). Plus, the formerly virtuously steamed chicken in the BYOB came out in a gummy cornstarch coating - ugh - with no warning on the menu that it would be breaded and fried instead of steamed.

I have higher expectations once wait staff are involved, and don't think Dragon Bowl has made the leap. What's wrong with being a useful restaurant? Couldn't those new menu items work with the counter service model?

We did share our disappointment with someone - I think Michael - who said they were still experimenting with the mix. If they've gone back to counter service at lunch, we'll go back & try it out.

I will give them credit with the BYOB for being generous with the veggies. Jenni's could learn from this.


Health effects

Escolar's wax ester content can cause keriorrhea (Greek: flow of wax), gempylotoxism or gempylid fish poisoning [3]. Keriorrhea is similar to diarrhea, only the body will expel yellowish-orange drops of oil instead of liquid bowel movements. Some individuals suffering from escolar-induced keriorrhea also report other digestive issues, including stomach cramps, diarrhea, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and anal leakage; onset may occur between 30 minutes and 36 hours following consumption.[4] This condition may also be referred to as steatorrhea.

Two known ways to reduce the likelihood of escolar-induced keriorrhea are to limit portions to six ounces or less and to consume portions close to the tail, which typically have a lower wax ester content. Reports conflict on whether deep skinning, freezing or grilling will reduce the likelihood of keriorrhea.

Rina Bleyzer O'Malley
Rina Bleyzer O'Malley

Sounds great Katharine. I've always thought that Michael was very talented - I was a big fan of Rockwood Room and was really sad about that whole fiasco. Never really thought the Caffe Bello thing would work, and was wondering how this would end up. Really hopeful now about this place now - can't wait to try it.

Karie Costa
Karie Costa

I have always loved the Dragon Bowl, which is a MUCH better dollar value than the fare at Lola's. Looking forward to seeing the new menu, thanks for the heads-up.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Dragon Bowl is still counter service at lunch. It will be interesting to see if the full service during dinner lasts.