Bahn Xeo Buffet
The first time I went to the gigantic new Kim Son restaurant at Bellaire and Wilcrest, it was Sunday around noon, and there was a 20-minute wait for a table in the dim sum hall. So while we were waiting, I walked around and peeked into some of the carts to see what kinds of delicacies I wanted to order.
The Kim Son in Stafford is my favorite place for dim sum. Their Hong Kong-trained chef puts out the biggest variety and the most intricately decorated dim sum dishes in the city. So I was eager to see what it would be like at Kim Son's lavish new showplace in the Bellaire Chinatown neighborhood a few blocks from Hong Kong City Mall.
Walking around the dining room, I spotted some spiral-shelled purple conch in Chinese brown sauce that I had never had before and was eager to try. There were also some crab dishes that looked great. But by the time we were seated, the purple conch was long gone. And so, it seemed, was just about everything else.
For the 45 minutes we sat there, I begged every cart pusher I saw for the round pork and shrimp dumplings called xiu mai. And I never did get any. I never saw any ha cao, the tender white shrimp dumplings, either. Which is weird.
According to my dim sum guru, Houston Chinese cooking authority Dorothy Huang, xiu mai and ha cao are the two most popular items at dim sum restaurants the world over -- they practically define the genre. I have been to dim sum restaurants that seemed to serve almost nothing else. But I have never been to a dim sum restaurant where I couldn't get either one of them.
I made do with some excellent seafood congee, which is rice porridge with chopped shrimp and squid, or at least I think that's what it was. It tasted like a sort of cross between fish soup and cream of rice cereal. I also had some decent, though lukewarm, potstickers. But the layout of the restaurant seemed to encourage the dim sum carts to skip our section of the restaurant.
Where you sit in a dim sum restaurant is critical to your enjoyment of the food. While the tables next to the kitchen door are usually the ones you want to avoid in a regular dining room, they are prime territory when you are eating dim sum. As the dim sum carts roll out of the kitchen, those sitting next to the door get the first shot. That means a better selection and hotter food.
We were given a table in the farthest corner of the dining room from the kitchen door, and since there was a long wait for tables, we could either take it or go to the end of the line. We were too far from the kitchen to get anything hot, and we had no chance at anything exotic. To complicate things, Kim Son gives their busboys carts too, so the usual dim sum cart navigation lanes are constantly getting blocked by these garbage scows on wheels.
We ate everything we could get our hands on, but after a while, all we saw were the same carts loaded with congee, rice noodles, potstickers and chicken feet going around in circles. So I got up and walked to the back of the restaurant where you can get dishes from an impromptu buffet line of chafing dishes. There I snagged some Chinese broccoli, mussels with black bean sauce and a big dish of egg noodles cooked with pork and vegetables.
I also gave up on the idea of getting our water glasses refilled. The guys serving beverages were in the weeds. They were running all over the place while people yelled at them. I spotted a cart near the front door where the plastic pitchers containing ice water were kept. So I walked over and snatched one. It was that or expire from thirst.
Compared to the Stafford location, it was a bush league dim sum brunch. Strange to say it, but Kim Son now seems to be simultaneously running the best and the worst of Houston's dim sum operations. As we left, I saw a sign indicating the restaurant served dim sum every day. Maybe on a weekday with a smaller crowd, I'd have a better chance of getting some purple conch.
The exterior architecture of the new shopping center at Bellaire and Wilcrest where Kim Son is located has that English-Chinese sort of aesthetic. With its white columns and big central clock, it looks like it ought to be in Hong Kong.
The new Kim Son is a 35,000-square-foot dining palace located on the center's second story. You get to the restaurant by scaling an elegantly decorated grand staircase. At the top of the stairs, you go to the left for the dim sum or to the right for the seafood buffet.
A few weeks ago, my brother Dave was in town. He lives in San Antonio and works as a salesman for restaurant purveyor Ben E. Keith. He is always up for Asian food when he's in Houston, so I suggested we try Kim Son's weekday dim sum for lunch.
The weekday dim sum dining room was much smaller than the one used on the weekends. There were only two other tables occupied, which was not a good sign. We ordered some hot tea when we sat down, and then we were given menus -- there aren't any dim sum carts on weekdays, the manager told us. The dim sum menu wasn't very long or very interesting either. (No wonder there were so few customers.)
I asked my brother if he would rather go down the street to Ocean Palace, which had dim sum from carts every day, or try Kim Son's buffet. My brother Dave has sold groceries to a lot of Chinese restaurants in his long career in the business, and he has always avoided eating at the ones with buffets. But since we were already there, he made an exception.
When we told the dim sum dining room manager that we were going to go over to the buffet dining room instead, he freaked out. (Maybe he was on some kind of incentive program?) The waitress had already brought our tea, he pointed out. He told us we could stay at the same table and still eat the buffet. And with that, the waitress and the manager pulled back the giant panels that separated the two dining rooms, revealing the buffet just beyond the doors. It was like some kind of magic act.
Dave's eyes widened as he took in the scene. There was a staggering amount of food on display. But while that was impressive, it was the crowd that caught Dave's attention. "I have never seen a Chinese buffet restaurant with all Asian customers," he said in amazement.
In fact, you need a pretty decent grasp of Vietnamese cuisine to figure out some of the more popular buffet items. I had to show Dave what to do with the big crepes called bahn xeo. The crunchy pancake is fried with pieces of pork and shrimp; you break some off and wrap it in lettuce leaves with fresh herbs and cucumber, then douse it with fish sauce. You also need to know that the minced poultry mixture is eaten inside of the lettuce cups that sit beside it.
Of course, you can always ask your fellow diners -- as I did about the noodles. There was an area next to the bahn xeo where the steam table containers held various meats and vegetables, but I couldn't figure out what they were for. "You mix them with the noodles," somebody told me. What noodles? I wondered. While we were talking, an employee arrived bearing a huge container of hot vermicelli, and the mystery was solved.
The bahn xeo is easily the most popular item on the lunch buffet -- it looked like every table had some. Also popular are the small bowls of soup noodles and soup with dumplings that you order from a special made-to-order counter over to the side. The cook there also makes egg cakes to order -- these are individual omelets with potato chunks. They're bland, but you can doctor them up with the condiments available at the counter. (Watch out for the shrimp paste! It smells like bilge gunk.)
Fried cuttlefish, seafood delight salad with jellyfish, jalapeños stuffed with shrimp paste and snails in brown sauce were some other highlights of the buffet. Stay away from the sushi, which gets crusty and stale after sitting out for hours.
It's a great lunch deal for $7.95, especially if you're really hungry. But while most of the dishes are competently prepared, they aren't hot out of the wok like they would be if you ordered them as individual dishes at a regular restaurant. At dinner time, when the price goes up, it just isn't worth it. There is too much great Vietnamese food in that neighborhood to bother with lukewarm buffets.
I would have guessed the mighty Kim Son would come into Bellaire Chinatown like a fire-breathing dragon with a top-end restaurant that showed everybody else how Vietnamese is done. It's sad to see them imitating the Happy Panda with an all-you-can-eat buffet instead. We can only hope this is not a sign that the Kim Son dynasty has decided to seek their fortune on the culinary low road from now on.
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