Ooh Lai Lai!
The first thing you need to know about Lai Lai Dumpling House is that the restaurant doesn't take credit cards. It's a cash-only eatery. The second thing you need to know about Lai Lai Dumpling House is that the first thing doesn't matter -- the prices are laughably low.
This is cheap eats heaven. With nothing on the menu more expensive than $5.95, and serving sizes suitable for a football training camp, Lai Lai has justifiably attracted a wide range of patrons, from Rice students to young professionals looking to save a few bucks. How cheap is the place? Let me put it this way: There were four in our party; we ordered soup, dumplings and four other dishes, and had lots of leftovers. The total? $20.
Low prices, of course, are meaningless if the food is as cheap as the bill of fare. But the dishes at Lai Lai are good, really good. In fact, I was so happy eating these hearty northern Chinese dishes that I barely noticed that the decor was functional at best. Frankly, I didn't care. I could have eaten this stuff in a coal mine and been delighted.
Let's start with the obvious, those namesake dumplings. These aren't your delicate Cantonese dumplings or your elegant Japanese gyoza. Made in-house, these are dumplings in their primeval state, with thick skins surrounding heartily spiced fillings. An order of the assorted steamed dumplings ($4.25 for ten) gives you a standard sampling: pork, beef and vegetarian. I probably liked the pork best, but the vegetarian were terrific as well, a sprightly mixture of napa cabbage, fresh veggies and pickled vegetables. But as much as I liked the steamed dumplings, I enjoyed the fried pork ones ($4.25 for eight) even more. Frying the dumpling gives the bottom a nicely brown chewy texture, which contrasts beautifully with the doughy top. (Added bonus: On every table are bottles of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and hot chili sauce, allowing you to mix the dipping concoctions to your personal specifications.)
Beyond the dumplings, however, you'll find Lai Lai does many other things well. Like soups. I loved Lai Lai's hot and sour soup ($1.80 for two, which easily serves four; $3.50 for four, which would probably feed the Green Bay Packers). Not overly thick with cornstarch, but expertly balanced between the pungency of the white pepper and chilies and the tang of the vinegar, the soup is the ideal belly-warmer for a cold winter evening.
Another excellent soup is the pork with Szechuan cabbage noodle ($3.50), enough for four when ordered as part of a larger meal. The waiter initially tried to dissuade me from the noodle soup. "I don't think you'll like it," he warned. I asked him why. "It has a different taste. Westerners usually don't like it." Not to brag, but I've heard this line before, and I usually prove to be a Westerner with an Easterner's taste buds. I told him to bring it on. It did indeed have a different taste, but one that made us fight over the last spoonful. It's a light broth filled with lots of homemade noodles (perfect for slurping), strips of pork and plenty of pickled vegetables. At first taste it's a tad boring, then each bite of cabbage explodes with heat and tanginess, which is wonderful. But if you let the soup steep a bit, the vegetables add more tang to the soup, which is even more delightful.
The waiter also suggested we avoid the shredded pork cold noodles ($3.50), so we immediately ordered them. A huge bowl of noodles is crowned with a rich sesame sauce, cold pork and, oddly, corn, lima beans and peas, remarkably similar to VegAll. It's a combo that shouldn't work -- VegAll? -- but does.
Lai Lai does chicken two different ways, and both are splendid. The General Tso's chicken ($5.25) is everything you want from this classic -- big chunks of chicken breaded and fried, then tossed with a rich, spicy sauce boasting just the right sweet accents. What's truly amazing, though, is the size of the portion. Four people gorged on it (some with seconds, even thirds), and the leftovers still amounted to a regular serving size in any other restaurant.
Slightly more unusual, although equally delicious, was the Chicken Lai Lai ($5.95). What looks to be a whole chicken is roasted, hacked into chopstick-manageable pieces, perhaps stir-fried quickly to make the skin crispy, then glossed with a light and lovely cilantro-scented sauce. Tremendous.
My favorite dish, though, was the huge platter of "moo shee" pork fried homemade cake ($3.95). Take terrific moo shu pork, but instead of serving it in thin pancakes, fry it with homemade cake ("cake" is a misnomer; it's really more like long cubed noodles). It's deeply satisfying, filling as all get-out and saturated with a great smoky flavor that only a superhot wok can deliver.
I was rewarded with an additional grimace from the waiter when I ordered the beef flapjack ($2.25, listed under Weekend Breakfast). I hadn't a clue as to what I was going to receive, but with a name like that, how could I resist? Not a pancake in the traditional sense, this flapjack is more like hot bread, stuffed with slices of cured beef and lots of herbs for garnish. A Chinese poor boy, really. It's sturdy enough to be eaten with your hands -- and quite good.
And that's the beauty of Lai Lai Dumpling House: The prices are so low you can experiment with impunity. I'm guessing just about everything is worth trying, even the pork ear ($3.55). Just imagine the waiter's face when you order that.
Lai Lai Dumpling House, 9262 Bellaire Boulevard, (713)271-0080; and 14520 Memorial Drive, suite 112, (281)368-8368.
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