Five Hidden Gems to Discover in Chinatown

Here's where you should be eating but probably aren't.

Top Five

You know it's fresh because you can see the meat hanging.

I spend a lot of time in Chinatown. Between shopping for squid fryers at Japanese import store Fit, getting foot reflexology at Lucky Feet and eating my way through hundreds of restaurants, I could pretty much never leave if I didn't have to, you know, go to work and feed my cat and whatnot.

While roaming Bellaire Boulevard, I'm constantly surprised to see a new hole-in-the-wall restaurant I've never before noticed, the meaning behind its Chinese characters a complete mystery to me. There is so much to see and do and so many places to eat that it would take years to visit them all.

A delectable combo platter at Nam Giao.
Minh T. Truong
A delectable combo platter at Nam Giao.
The mudbugs at Crawfish and Noodles are prepared Vietnamese-style.
Brian Austin
The mudbugs at Crawfish and Noodles are prepared Vietnamese-style.

Fortunately, I know people who've been hitting up these small joints in Chinatown long before I moved here last July. I've managed to find several places on my own, and with the help of my intrepid foodie friends, we've compiled quite the list of places not to be missed.

Here's where you should be eating in Chinatown that you probably aren't.

Honorable Mention: Long Sing Supermarket

Okay, so Long Sing Supermarket isn't in Chinatown as we know it today. It's just east of downtown next to BBVA Compass Stadium in the area that used to be Chinatown before mass waves of immigrants moved to the suburbs out west of the Loop in the 1980s and '90s. But because I didn't specify which Chinatown I'd be discussing in the intro to this article, I'm gonna tack Long Sing Supermarket onto the list. The Chinese barbecue here is some of the best in town, and you know it's fresh because you can see the meat hanging on the other side of a glass window. Glistening red ducks and chickens are chopped up and served atop a bed of rice with stir-fried broccoli and onions for only $5.50 at lunchtime. The decor leaves a little to be desired (I mean, it's a supermarket), but the deals are not to be missed.

5. Welcome Food Center

Like Long Sing, Welcome Food Center is a grocery store with a few different deli areas. If Long Sing has the best Chinese barbecue in Old Chinatown, Welcome Food Center has some of the best in "new" Chinatown. In addition to duck and chicken, the barbecue deli inside Welcome Food Center serves barbecued pork that's carved off a large hanging shoulder, belly and loin as you order it. On the other side of the ­supermarket is a dim-sum-to-go counter. All the dim sum is made by the little old man in the back, and for pre-packaged dim sum, it's pretty darn good. That fella clearly knows what he's doing.

4. Golden Dim Sum

Speaking of dim sum, my favorite spot for dim sum (and a whole host of other Chinese delicacies) is Golden Dim Sum. The chef used to be at Golden Palace, but when he moved to Golden Dim Sum, so did his recipes and many of his customers. This is the place where I got the sesame soft balls on my list of 100 favorite dishes, and it's where I've tried everything from chicken feet to salt and pepper chicken wings that, like many chicken wings in Chinatown, have clearly visible MSG crystals dotting the crisp browned skin. No, it's not the best thing for you, but it's certainly authentic. On top of that, the atmosphere — think gaudy Chinese wedding with a McDonald's color scheme — is not to be missed.

3. Saigon Pagolac

When GQ food and wine writer Alan Richman came to Houston, this is where Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd took him for an incredible meal. So I guess it's not exactly unknown, but it is more of a Houston chef hangout than an obvious choice for a Chinatown feast for the rest of us. The Vietnamese restaurant celebrated its 25th birthday on April 10, and it's easy to see how it's been in business so long in such a fickle industry. The specialty of the house is beef cooked seven ways: beef fondue (thin slices of beef cooked in a vinegar broth), beef sausage, ground beef wrapped in a Hawaiian leaf and grilled, steamed beef meatballs, sliced beef grilled over charcoal, beef tenderloin salad and beef noodle soup. All seven courses cost just $15.95 per person, and they're fit for a king. Or a nationally recognized visiting food writer.

2. Lucky Pot

Lucky Pot has only ten tables, and if the place is open, chances are every table is full. The noodle soups made Lucky Pot famous, but the small restaurant also serves great whole fish in spicy garlic sauce and ma po tofu (two similar dishes are available at another often-full restaurant in Chinatown with a little more press coverage, Mala Sichuan). Many of my friends swear by the Peking duck and wings at Lucky Pot, which are highlights of any meal there, but I remain loyal to the simple and hearty noodle soups, like the house special with bacon, mushrooms and dried tofu. For the best experience, bring a crowd and eat family-style.

1. Nam Giao

When I texted a friend earlier to ask him if he thought Nam Giao was fairly unknown, he replied simply, "CRYSTAL DUMPLINGS." Another friend to whom I presented the same query also failed to answer my question. He responded, "If you eat there without me, I will not speak to you again." Nam Giao serves traditional Vietnamese food in a sophisticated space, which sets it apart from other, dingier spots in town. The banh nam, steamed flat rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves, are addictively good, and the banh bot loc, boiled crystal dumplings with transparent wrappers hiding pink shrimp and crispy pork, are unusual but divine.

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