Five Hidden Gems to Discover in Chinatown
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.
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.
Bounty of the Sea
Where to get mudbugs in Houston.
Last time we wrote about crawfish here on the blog, we had mixed emotions.
On one hand, we were excited to welcome mudbugs back to our plates and bellies for the season after an unusually cold winter. On the other, we were somewhat flabbergasted by the prices and the short supply of our favorite springtime indulgence. Due to the chilly weather that kept the crawfish from growing big and strong (and juicy), many local restaurants were selling them for higher-than-usual prices and were running out at an alarming rate.
Following various restaurant Facebook pages is a good way to find out if a certain spot is out for the day, but who has time to call and shop around for the best deals?
Actually, we do. And we realize that this list isn't exhaustive, but it represents a good cross-section of all the city has to offer, from Vietnamese to Cajun and hole-in-the-wall to fancy-schmancy.
Here's the rundown on some of your favorite crawfish spots, now that the costs are smaller and the bugs are bigger.
Bayou City Seafood & Pasta
Every weekday, Bayou City has crawfish on special from 2 to 6 p.m. If you're dining in, you can get crawfish for $6.99 per pound. Otherwise, it's $7.99 per pound. This is a traditional spicy Cajun boil, and the mudbugs are pretty darn big.
For $7.95, you can get a pound of crawfish as well as one serving of corn and one potato at all BB's locations. BB's isn't running out of crawfish anymore (some of the locations were earlier in the season), and a person I spoke with expects that prices will continue to drop into the summer, even though crawfish season officially ends June 1 with the start of hurricane season.
Blue Water Seafood
The mudbugs at Blue Water Seafood are currently $6.99 per pound and come with corn and potatoes. A representative tells me that they rarely run out of boiled crawfish, but they also sell it live by the bag, and sometimes they run out of that. Right now, the critters are on special: Buy four pounds and get the fifth pound free.
Boheme Cafe and Wine Bar
Boheme might not be the first place you think of when you crave crawfish, but the bar and restaurant has the best prices in town. Sous chef Jordan Economy cooks up Cajun-style mudbugs for $5.99 for one pound. The boil includes crawfish, corn, potatoes and andouille sausage, but it's only happening on Saturdays. Check the restaurant's Facebook page to make sure it's still scheduled when you make your weekend plans.
The Cajun Stop
At The Cajun Stop, my favorite dish is the étouffée, but the crawfish boils are pretty good, too. For $7.50, you get one pound of bugs with potatoes and corn. Bags of live crawfish are sold separately, and the price changes frequently, so call ahead to get exact numbers.
Calliope's New Orleans Style Seafood &Po-Boys
Right now, get one pound of crawfish with potatoes for $6.99 at Calliope's. They're big and spicy, and unlike at many other places, the potatoes are included in the price!
Cedar Creek serves crawfish on Thursdays and Fridays starting at 4 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at noon for $8 per pound. Go enjoy the lovely outdoor patio as you pinch the tails and suck the heads. The boils come with corn and potatoes, but a representative of Cedar Creek cautions that they do run out sometimes, so get there early.
Crawfish & Noodles
The Vietnamese crawfish joint cooks its mudbugs up in the traditional garlic butter sauce and is currently serving them for $8.99 a pound. Diners get one serving of corn and one potato with every four pounds purchased.
The Crawfish Shack in Crosby is BYOB, and the crawfish are only $6.95 a pound, making it a hot spot for dining on the seasonal fare. The boil contains mushrooms, potatoes and corn, and sometimes the critters go on special, so check the Facebook page for news of lower prices. The Crawfish Shack also sells live crawfish for $3.25 per pound by the large sackful, but you must call and reserve a sack ahead of time.
When I called to check the prices at Daily Seafood, the man who answered the phone said enthusiastically, "We got big ones in today!" Get 'em now for $6.99 per pound boiled with corn and potatoes or $4.99 per pound live.
Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen
I spoke with chef Danton Nix of Danton's, and he assured me that though the crawfish aren't as big as he's seen them in the past, they are "beautiful, and the flavor's great." Right now, Danton's has boiled crawfish for $6.99 per pound. "We've got one of the best suppliers in Louisiana, and we only do them in the heart of the season," Nix says. "I'm eating them every day."
After a few people complained that Guidry's wasn't on the last crawfish roundup, I made sure to include them this time. Guidry's is serving mudbugs for $6.99 per pound, potatoes are 50 cents each and corn is 75 cents per piece. You can can also buy 30- to 40-pound sacks of live crawfish at Guidry's for $3 per pound.
Hank's Cajun Crawfish(Chinatown and north Houston locations)
There are four Hank's locations in Houston, but two are affiliated with one "Hank" and the other two are affiliated with a different "Hank." The locations in Chinatown and north Houston currently have crawfish on sale for $6.99 a pound, and you can order corn, potatoes and sausage on the side.
Not to be confused with...
Hank's Cajun Crawfish(Westchase and Katy locations)
The other Hank's are selling crawfish for $7.99 a pound with a two-pound minimum required. For an extra $2.75, you can order one potato, one piece of corn and one piece of sausage.
Jenivi's Seafood Shoppe & Restaurant
Jenivi's often writes on Facebook that it has run out of "seafood." Not just crawfish. Everything. So get there early for $7.99-per-pound mudbugs with potatoes and corn.
All LA Crawfish locations are currently offering crawfish for $6.99 per pound. These are Vietnamese-style with lots of garlic and butter. Bring a bib!
All Ragin Cajun locations are selling crawfish for $24.99 for a 3.5-pound bucket or $12.99 for a 1.75-pound bucket. As always, Ragin Cajun's boils include corn and potatoes.
More Vietnamese-style critters! Though garlic and butter is the classic topping at Wild Cajun, the shop also offers Cajun-style. Either flavor is $6.99 per pound, but the small joint does run out from time to time, so call ahead.
The former Mardi Gras Grill has the second-best prices in town. Right now, get your crawfish for $6.25 per pound or five pounds for $28. Corn and potatoes are sold separately. For $2.50, you get three pieces each of corn and potatoes.
Italy à la Houston
No need to travel overseas.
Traveling to Europe is expensive, and not everyone has the ability, time or money to make the trip. But good news: You don't have to. You can actually stay in Houston and visit a multitude of shops, restaurants and parks just as you would in a European country.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about several restaurants and places in Houston where you could spend the day in France. Now we're exploring Houston's eateries and shops where you can spend the day in Italy. Buon viaggio and buon appetito!
If one thing's for sure, day plans in Italy are made around food and meals. In fact, no matter what city you are in, you can find something to eat at any hour of the day — Florence even has a secret bakery that serves a selection of baked goods at 3 o'clock in the morning.
Set the mood for the day and walk along the Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive sidewalks overlooking Buffalo Bayou. It's not exactly like the Arno River in Florence, and the bridges that cross the bayou are not as beautiful as the Ponte Vecchio, but it's a peaceful way to begin your morning before heading to breakfast.
Now, you won't find any lumberjack breakfasts in Italy; the first meal of the day is eaten quickly and is typically small, consisting of a pastry, hard-boiled egg with cheese and bread, or slices of melon and prosciutto, and a cup of coffee. Just about any coffee shop in Houston will supply you with a quick pastry and espresso, but Rice Village's Fellini Caffè is a little piece of Italy right here in Houston. In fact, the owners intended for it to be just like the sidewalk cafes you can find throughout that country. All the coffee drinks are brewed from Lavazza beans, popular among many Italians. Step right up to the bar for a quick espresso, or sit outside and enjoy a caffe latte or cappuccino with a complimentary biscotto, or purchase one of the many pastries.
It's easy to over-schedule yourself in America and give yourself way too many tasks to complete in one day, often leaving you stressed. Italians don't spend their days rushing from one meeting or appointment to another. It's a much simpler and more casual lifestyle than the one Americans lead.
While living in Italy during a summer study-abroad program, I found that an excellent way to spend the morning was at the farmers' market — and it was one of the only ways I could get food to make in my apartment. If you're traveling through Italy in Houston on a Saturday, traipse on over to the Eastside Saturday Farmers Market, and don't forget to bring your own shopping bags. Normally, Italian farmers markets are set up with farmers selling produce outside; butchers selling beef, poultry and seafood; bakers selling pastries and breads; and shop owners selling seasonings, pastas and prepared foods inside. At the Eastside Farmers Market, you can collect fruits and vegetables from local farmers such as Animal Farm, Atkinson Farm, Sustainable Harvesters and Knopp Branch Farm. Purchase a few cuts of meat from Georgia's Grassfed Beef or Harrison Hog Farms, then stock up on bread from Artisana Breads and Angela's Oven.
If you can walk to your home from the market, by all means do so. Even better if you can hop on a scooter and drive back.
After you unload your groceries, you've probably worked up an appetite. And that's good timing because lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Some of the best trattorias I found in Italy were tucked in the tiny side streets away from any tourist attractions. The peacefulness of the quiet environment made the meals that much better.
If you're spending your day in Italy on a weekday and have some time to kill, head to Patrenella's for a comforting and filling lunch complete with an antipasto of fried Mozzarella or eggplant involtini, followed by a primi of pappardelle veal bolognese, linguine and clams, or a spicy pomodoro and mushroom spaghetti with shrimp. Then feast on veal in olive sauce or lightly seared scallops served with basil risotto for the secondi.
On the weekend, head to Paulie's for a hearty pasta dish. Try No. 40 on Kaitlin Steinberg's list of her favorite dishes, canestri alla funghi. It's a giant plate filled with homemade canestri and bucatini pasta tossed in a garlic cream sauce with crimini and shiitake mushrooms.
For a lighter meal, stroll around the Village Shopping Center and stop by D'Amico's Italian Market Cafe to enjoy the popular wild mushroom and walnut tortellini, or nosh on a classic Italian panini, such as the Siciliano panini with prosciutto, Mozzarella and tomato; vegetarians can enjoy the Milano panini with grilled eggplant, sautéed mushrooms, bell peppers, tomato and provolone. Or how about a margherita pizza? Even better, walk up to the pizza window at Coppa Osteria in Rice Village and enjoy your pie on the go.
There are also other traditional Italian restaurants such as Ciao Bello, Papa Mio Italian Cafe, Trevisio, Nino's, Prego and La Griglia serving up classic dishes for every course.
If you're searching for something sweet, make a trip to Drew's Pastry Place on Louetta Road near Vintage Park, where you can satisfy that sweet tooth with scrumptious and sweet pignoli and rainbow cookies. Enjoy a cannoli or one of his cannoli cupcakes while you're there, too.
Or perhaps you want something cool. Just as you can find a coffee shop on every street corner in Italy, you'll also find a shop selling gelato (sometimes inside the coffee shops). Gelato is a light, sweet and refreshing treat during the afternoon or even late at night, not to mention that the flavors are so beautiful in the display cases. Check out Cafe Dolce Gelato in the Galleria area, SweetCup Gelato on Montrose or Paciugo Italian Gelato Caffe on Buffalo Speedway.
For dinner, head to Giacomo's Cibo e Vino for light aperitivos or a plate of pasta, and don't forget about your dolce and vino. Pair a bottle of Chianti Classico, Prosecco or Pecorino (all from Italy) with crostini topped with Tuscan liver pâté; mushroom olive pesto; or the classic tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil. You can't go wrong with a pasta dish, such as the tortellini al sugo rosa (stuffed pasta with a tomato cream sauce). Delight yourself with an affogato or chocolate hazelnut mousse. Or better yet, order a glass of vin santo with cantuccini (essentially biscotti) imported from Italy; you'll love the sweet amber-colored dessert wine produced from dried grapes.
Stay late at Giacomo's and share a bottle of wine with friends and family, or head back to Rice Village for an evening stroll and make a pit stop at Coppa Osteria for zeppole (fried donuts), cannoli, panna cotta or classic tiramisu, and pair each with the suggested wine or spirit for the perfect nightcap.
Openings & Closings
Want some doughnuts with that ice cream?
As May begins, we gear up to welcome several highly anticipated restaurants. But before we get to that news, let's take a look at two notable shutters.
River Oaks and Upper Kirby folks said good-bye to Crescent City Beignets on Westheimer near the beginning of the month. The Subway, dry cleaners store and Crescent City Beignets in the Lamar-River Oaks Shopping Center will be transformed into a restaurant from Atlanta chef Ford Fry. Eric Sandler of CultureMap reports that Fry is a native Houstonian and graduated from Lamar High School, directly across the street from his upcoming restaurant, which Fry hopes to open in 2015. The Town Center Boulevard location is still open.
According to Eater Houston, Eighteenth Cocktail Bar has closed but will be moving to a new location — which has yet to be announced. The 2511 Bissonnet lot won't be vacant for long, though. Swamplot reports that Escalante's will be taking over the space soon.
The first VERTS location opened on Yale off Washington recently, and the second opened on April 26 on West Gray. With four more locations on the way, Houstonians will have plenty of places to grab a döner kebap.
Buttz Gourmet Food Truck (don't laugh) is now roaming the streets serving its pecan-smoked pulled pork and pulled chicken sandwiches. The new truck will always serve two signature sandwiches: the Texas Butt sandwich, with pulled pork, Texas-style barbecue sauce, yellow mustard, pickles and onions stuffed between artisan bread, and the Caroline Butt sandwich, with pulled pork, Caroline mustard barbecue sauce and cilantro slaw. Others include a banh mi pulled pork sandwich; an Asian barbecue sauce pulled pork sandwich; and even a healthy sandwich with strawberries, cucumber, goat cheese, candied pecans, balsamic and mixed greens. Any of these sandwiches can be made with pulled chicken.
Another new food truck, Pepe's Grill, holds its grand opening on Friday, May 2. The truck serves Latin American and Mexican plates such as deep-fried chicken with fried plantains, grilled pork chops, fajitas, enchiladas, and side orders of cornbread and pork and beans. Pepe's Grill even has a signature sauce used on its barbecue chicken and barbecue ribs.
Although Siphon Coffee was originally slated to open in February, the new coffee shop should be opening in a few weeks. On April 23, the West Alabama coffee shop posted a photo on Facebook of its sign stating "Opening Soon." Siphon Coffee will offer craft beer and wine alongside its various coffee concoctions; chef Amanda McGraw, formerly of Brasserie 19, designed the menu and trained the in-house chef.
The Houston Chronicle reports that the former Philippe Restaurant + Lounge has been transformed into Table and will open officially to the public on Thursday, May 15. The new restaurant is headed up by executive chef Manuel Pucha, the former chef de cuisine at Philippe. Table will feature contemporary American dishes such as seafood risotto, brick chicken, tuna carpaccio flatbread and even a Dr Pepper cake.
While Dunkin' Donuts opens shops with Baskin-Robbins, the owners of H-Town StrEATs decided to put their own doughnut shop next door to Fat Cat Creamery. Swamplot confirms that Hugs & Doughnuts will open at 1901 North Shepherd. So if you've got a hankering for ice cream and doughnuts, this shopping center will soon be your one-stop shop.
The folks behind Jus' Mac are opening a new restaurant on TC Jester, and it won't specialize in mac and cheese. According to The Leader, the Jus' Mac owners will open Biskit Junkie, a Southern cafe featuring a variety of biscuit dishes, including a hybrid between a pancake and a biscuit, a "pancuit." Diners can also build their own biscuits to create sandwiches with items like fried chicken and braised short ribs. The owners hope to have the new establishment up and running by May 15.
Kevin Naderi spoke with the Chronicle last week and explained the concept of his upcoming restaurant, Lillo & Ella. His current restaurant, Roost, serves dishes from multiple cuisines; diners can enjoy sweet potato samosas and yellow corn cakes topped with a Louisiana crawfish and artichoke ragout, then move on to a blueberry and lemon curd tart with chocolate sauce, Maldon salt and whipped cream. But at Lillo & Ella, he will focus on Asian cuisine with street food dishes, large plates to share and even robata-style skewers. Menu items include blue crab fried rice, mustard greens and yams in a Thai coconut sauce with chile, and quail with black bean and hoisin sauce. Naderi hopes to open Lillo & Ella in May.
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