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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.
Say "I do" to a cocktail hour featuring Houston's best chicken wings.
Brook Viggiano
Say "I do" to a cocktail hour featuring Houston's best chicken wings.

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

Canopy

Federal American Grill

Southern Comfort

Just like Granny used to make.

Brennan's of Houston

Frank's Americana Revival

LA Bar

Lucille's

Ouisie's Table

The Meat of the Matter

If it's meat you're after, these restaurants have you covered.

Vic & Anthony's

La Casa del Caballo

Sullivan's Steakhouse

Del Frisco's Grille

Brenner's Steak House

Fish Dishes

Mollusks, urchins and fishes, oh my! Get a taste of seafood from around the world!

Brasserie 19

Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen

Eddie V's Prime Seafood Restaurant

Merlion Restaurant

Oceanaire Seafood Room

Surf & Turf

Can't decide between steak and seafood? You don't have to.

III Forks

Joyce's Seafood and Steaks

Line & Lariat

Morton's

Veritas Steak and Seafood

Delectable Vegetables

Vegetarian dishes steal the show at these ­restaurants whose veggie dishes are so good, you won't miss the meat.

Bistro des Amis

Harvest Organic Grille

Haven

Indika

Kiran's Restaurant and Bar

Drinking Dinner

More interested in vino than veal? These places have some of the best wine lists in town.

Max's Wine Dive

Philippe

Sonoma

Tango & Malbec

The Tasting Room

Dinner and a Show

These five spots are known for live music, entertaining chefs and great views. Bring a date!

Tokyohana

Solea

Sambuca

Spindletop at the Hyatt Regency

Rioja

Bang for Your Buck

Six restaurants are offering four courses for the price of only three. We suggest wearing stretchy pants to dinner.

Ciao Bello

Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

Max's Wine Dive

Coppa Ristorante

Post Oak Grill

Soma Sushi

Must Eats

If you haven't been to these places yet, it's about damn time you went.

benjy's

Brennan's of Houston

Charivari

Shade

Mockingbird Bistro
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Booze

Dust off Your Coconut Bra
Houston is getting a tiki bar.

Kaitlin Steinberg

Craft breweries, upscale cocktail lounges and dive bars abound in Houston, but there's one thing you might not have even realized we're missing: A tiki bar.

Husband-and-wife team Russell and Elizabeth Thoede are attempting to right this wrong with Lei Low, a tiki bar slated to open on North Main in the Heights this fall.

Because that seems like way too long to wait for a proper mai tai, the Thoedes hosted their second pop-up (the first was June 26) upstairs at Grand Prize Bar on July 24.

July 21 was the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, a known lover of anything tiki. To celebrate Hem and delicious fruity cocktails, the theme for the bar takeover was Bar Constantino, Constantino being the name of the best-known bartender at El Floridita bar in Havana.

"Hemingway is a big figure in the cocktail world," Russell explains. "We wanted to celebrate him, in a way. Some of the bars he frequented in Cuba during Prohibition are some that Trader Vic (the supposed inventor of the mai tai) referenced in his concept. We're re-creating some of his old Cuban drinks."

Once Lei Low is operating in its own location in the fall, the Cuban theme will become a weekly event. In fact, Russell says there will be a theme for every day of the week just to keep things interesting.

Monday will feature different mai tai recipes from various bars throughout history.

Tuesday will have a Caribbean reggae theme, which is controversial because it's bad luck to play reggae at a tiki bar in Hawaii. The Thoedes want to prove they have no fear. Wednesday will likely have a vintage beach theme, while Thursday will be zombie night.

Russell says he intends to use seasonal ingredients in his cocktails as much as possible, but for the time being, there won't be a restaurant at the bar. He's hoping to bring in food trucks to feed hungry drinkers until he's able to establish a kitchen.

Eventually there will also be frozen daiquiris and a locker where people can keep their own tiki mugs. That's right; bring your favorite tiki mug and the bartenders will keep it locked up for you until you're ready for a special zombie punch in your very own glass.

Though most tiki drinks use rum, which Russell describes as "a permanent vacation," he acknowledges that there are tropical drinks that make use of other types of liquor.

"We are actually going to do a Ramos Gin Fizz in a whipped-cream canister," Russell says excitedly. "It was famous in New Orleans during Prohibition. When you get one as a bartender, you usually curse and scream, 'cause under bartender code, you have to shake it for eight minutes, and your arm gets all cramped. We're letting the whipped-cream canister do all the work."

It's clear that Russell and Elizabeth are super excited about their new venture, but when it comes to Russell's personal preferences about tiki drinks, he gets a little tongue-tied.

"Oh gosh, it's so hard when people ask me my favorites," he says. "I really enjoy so much. If I had to pick a favorite, I might say a mai tai. But it's so hard for me to pick. I like them all."
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On the Menu

Wedding Talk: Dream Cocktail Hour
What Houston foods would you want?

Brooke Viggiano

I've been engaged for quite some time now...and I haven't planned a damn thing for the wedding. No date. No venue. No flowers. No dress.

I'm a bad bride, I know. It just doesn't excite me all that much. Well, except for the food (err, and the man, that too). The food, I can dream about that all day.

So I've dreamed up a cocktail hour filled with five of my favorite bites in Houston. From the city's best sliders to East Coast-West Coast wings, here's what I'd love at my un-fancy affair:

5. Reef Sliders & Oyster Bar

What guest wouldn't love a Reef slider, I ask you? No guest of mine.

The salted, crisp and buttery grilled bun; plump, juicy-as-hell hunk of ground beef; mound of sweet, melt-in-your-mouth caramelized onions; and drizzle of creamy Sriracha rémoulade dripping down your chin. Add fresh Gulf oysters on the half shell and you have yourself a lifetime of ­happiness.

While we're at it, maybe I'd just make the whole thing a Reef happy hour and include the jumbo shrimp shooters, too. Now that's true love.

4. Italian Station from Coppa

People like stations at cocktail hours. I think. Well, I do. And it's my fake wedding, so I do what I want.

This Little Italy-inspired station would include a feast of Coppa's best: baratta arancini — little deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with creamy mozzarella and served with shaved parmigiano cheese and fresh marinara; fritto misto — piles of fried calamari, shrimp and fennel; freshly made escarole and Caesar salads (because we need at least some greens); and made-to-order pastas and brick-oven pizzas, obviously.

3. A Miniature El Rey Taqueria

For my Cuban/Mexican station, I'd have the guys from El Rey Taqueria slinging out a few of my favorite tacos — ropa vieja, tacos al pastor, grilled fish tacos, carnitas, and chicken and steak fajita.

Then, of course, there'd be all the fixin's — fried plantains, charro beans, Mexican rice, grilled onions, shredded cheeses, sliced cabbage, fresh guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, habanero mayo and some cilantro for good measure.

2. Chicken Wings for Days

Including but not limited to: Max's Wine Dive's jalapeño and buttermilk-soaked fried chicken (served with the jalapeño corn cakes and maple syrup, of course); Mai's salt and pepper fried chicken wings with pepper and onion relish; and for shits and giggles, Goro & Gun's ODB & Biggie wings. We'll see where our guests' loyalties truly lie.

1. An Underbelly Carving Station

Who else to trust with the carving station than Mr. Houston himself, Chris Shepherd?

I'd let him choose the cuts of the day, but I'd make sure they were served alongside freshly baked loaves of Slow Dough bread and farmer's market sides like smoked corn puree, heirloom tomato and pepper chowchow, and hand-pulled Caprese salad. Then, also whatever else Shepherd thinks is best. I trust him. I do. (See, I can say it!)

With drinks (read: Jäger-bombs) flowing and these Houston favorites along for the ride, this is one wedding cocktail hour I'd actually want to have. A girl can dream, can't she?

What kind of cocktail hour would you dream up?
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Steak on acid, Louisiana cookin' and Twin Peaks.

Kaitlin Steinberg

If you're interested in a steakhouse on acid, then Mr. Peeples is the place for you! Eric Sandler at Eater reports that Mr. Peeples Seafood & Steaks opened July 29. Sandler was able to snap some photos of the place, which is majorly purple. There's also a 1,600-bottle wine tower, VIP lounges and graffiti made by a team of actual artists led by James Perez. The Eater article notes that a nightclub and performance space will be constructed in the basement in coming weeks. Thank God, 'cause I don't know how I'll be able to digest steak without strobe lights.

Queen Burger at 1802 West 18th closed several months ago but has reopened with the same ownership as Hughie's Tavern and Vietnamese Grill. The menu has some old favorites from Queen Burger as well as Southern standards like shrimp po-boys and buttermilk chicken tenders. The menu also has some Asian flare with fried rice and bánh mi sandwiches. Fans on the Hughie's Facebook page are already raving that the bánh mi are the best in the city.

Bust out your Mardi Gras beads a little early because Mojeauxs Louisiana Drinkery has moved into 2024 Rusk, the space formerly occupied by Cork Soakers Wine Bar. Cork Soakers has been transitioning into Mojeauxs since it closed in April, and Mojeauxs will have events and specials similar to those at its predecessor. The grand-opening celebration is Saturday, August 3, at 11 a.m. in the Mojeauxs parking lot. It will feature a gumbo cookoff, live zydeco music and lots of drink specials. Screw drink specials, though. What I want is one of Mojeauxs's INSANE Bloody Marys!

Swamplot reports that Maggie Rita's, the local Tex-Mex chain owned by Santiago Moreno and comedian Carlos Mencia that closed all three of its Houston locations in late 2012 and early 2013, has reappeared underground. Tony Shannard bought the name from Moreno and Mencia awhile back and opened another Maggie Rita's, in the underground tunnel, last year, so now there will be two margarita hot spots for the downtown mole people. The new location will open beneath First City Tower at 1001 Fannin, just half a mile from the other location, beneath the JP Morgan Chase building on Travis.

In what seems like an inevitable move, the Twin Peaks chain has opened its largest franchise in the country right here in The Woodlands. There's already a Twin Peaks inside the Loop, but again, this is the biggest one in the country. People have had surprisingly good things to say about the food, but I'm sure the...er...scenery doesn't hurt. And by that, I mean it's decorated like a Northwest lodge and features waitresses dressed as lumberjacks. If, you know, lumberjacks looked like Pam Anderson.

Finally, B4-U-Eat has reported on the opening of three new restaurants: Umami Sushi, Friends Uncorked and XYZ Drink Shop. There are few details available about any of these places beyond some promising Yelp reviews, but as we know, Yelp is a tricky devil.

Umami Sushi is located at 1029 North Highway 6 and features a five-page menu of Japanese food and sushi. Like really, the menu is outta control.

Friends Uncorked has opened in Friendswood, and based on the photos on its Facebook page, it looks like both people and canines are enjoying the outdoor patio and a glass or two of vino.

XYZ Drink Shop in Bellaire seems to be obsessed with rage comics, which is maybe a little odd for a smoothie and juice bar, but it looks like a fun place. Bubble tea, smoothies and shaved ice are just some of the offerings at the Asian-­inspired joint.

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