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Pudgy Pork Dumplings and Crisp Soft-Shell Crab

Cafe Chino proves looks can be deceiving.

On the Menu

Because of Cafe Chino, I'm going to have to stop saying that it's hard to find good Chinese food inside the Loop. I've probably passed this restaurant at least a hundred times en route to visiting its strip-mall neighbors, Party City and Rustika Cafe, and ignored it. With its pale Pepto-Bismol facade and aging terra-cotta roof, Cafe Chino isn't going to win an award for Most Attractive Restaurant anytime soon. But while its exterior is bland, its food is not. Isn't it wonderful that looks can be deceiving?

The restaurant was fairly quiet early on a weekday night when my companions and I stopped in for a belated birthday dinner. Ironically, such a setting can often mean slow service since waitstaff, in my experience, are sometimes less inclined to "hop to it" when the dining room isn't busy. I am very happy to say this was not the case at Cafe Chino since our waiter took our drink orders almost immediately and returned just as promptly with my frosty ­cosmopolitan.

Pork dumplings...
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Pork dumplings...
...and soft-shell crab with tomato chile at Cafe Chino.
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
...and soft-shell crab with tomato chile at Cafe Chino.

I wasn't feeling particularly adventurous when it came time to select appetizers and went along readily with a half and half (fried and steamed) order of pork dumplings. Thank goodness for my indifference. I unwittingly stumbled into the best pork dumplings I have had in Houston. Period.

Cafe Chino's pork dumplings have a relatively thin dough casing and therefore lack the gummy, overly starchy texture of other, lesser dumplings. Not to suggest, however, that the dough provides a flimsy container for the thick spiced pork meat, for they maintained their structural integrity and were able to withstand a sharp, savory sear from the frying pan.

A small (well, not too small), neurotic part of me always worries that entrée disappointment will follow appetizer success. It was too late, however, to ask the waiter to just bring me a triple serving of dumplings for dinner, so I would have to settle for my original order, the tomato chile soft-shell crab.

Well, the only thing I had to "settle" for in terms of the crab was a modest portion. The crustaceans were deep-fried but with only the lightest coating of batter, which precluded excessive greasiness and allowed the sweet pepper flavor of the sauce and the bittersweet onions to really shine. High adhesive, the tomato chile sauce also clung pleasantly to the grains of white rice I eventually mixed with the crab in an effort to extend the life of the dish. Yes, as with a good season finale, I just didn't want it to end.

But as one of my dining companions pointed out, it doesn't really have to. Cafe Chino is affordable as well as close enough to my house for reruns.
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Edible Events

Handicapping Houston Restaurant Week 2013
Your guide to the best meals and deals.

Kaitlin Steinberg

It's that time of year again, so loosen those belts and start practicing your overeating skills...Houston Restaurant Weeks is back!

We've already counted more than 150 participating restaurants, and more are being added every day. With so many places to choose from and so little time (okay, it's a month, but still), HRW can be difficult to navigate. That's why we've created this handy guide to help you choose where to go and what to eat.

Want some killer Southern food? Not sure where to go for live music? Aching for some surf and turf? Looking for four courses for the price of three? We got you covered.

• According to the HRW site, here's how it's all gonna go down:

• Two- to three-course lunch menus are $20; $3 of that goes to your area food bank.

• Two- to three-course brunch menus are $20; $3 of that goes to your area food bank.

• Three- to four-course brunch menus are $35; $5 of that goes to your area food bank.

• Some three- to four-course dinner menus are $35; $5 of that goes to your area food bank.

• Some three- to four-course dinner menus are $45; $7 of that goes to your area food bank.

You can also donate an additional $10 by texting "HRW" to 20222.

This year's HRW runs from August 1 through September 2, and participating restaurants will be offering Restaurant Weeks deals for specific meals any day they are open during this time.

Brunch Babes

These five restaurants offer special brunch menus, so bring your friends and spend a lazy afternoon eating for charity.

Brooklyn Athletic Club

Etoile Cuisine et Bar

RDG + Bar Annie

Sorrel Urban Bistro

The Tasting Room

Provençal Provisions

Say "oui" to these French restaurants!

Bistro des Amis

Au Petit Paris

Le Mistral

Philippe

Brasserie 19

Mambo Italiano

When you're there, you're famiglia.

Arturo Boada Cuisine

Arcodoro

Damian's Cucina Italiana

Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

Ristorante Cavour

Asian Persuasian

From Japanese to Thai, these restaurants will transport you to another land.

Azuma on the Lake

BLU Restaurant and Lounge

Kata Robata

Uptown Sushi

Soma Sushi

South of the Border

Spice things up with a little Latin food.

Churrasco's

Hugo's

Latin Bites

TQLA

Américas River Oaks

'Merica

These five spots are known for their great American cuisine.

benjy's

Backstreet Café

Brooklyn Athletic Club

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