Pho to Ramen, Bulgogi to Bo 7 Mon
Chinatown is my favorite neighborhood for dining and exploration in the entire city. For every old favorite you visit, you're guaranteed to find at least two new restaurants to fall in love with. You may not be able to get around by foot here — unlike some other cities' Chinatown districts — but that's because Houston's Chinatown is one of the largest in the country, covering six square miles.
The problem when covering a neighborhood this vast — not just geographically vast but also culturally vast — is choosing only ten restaurants out of the hundreds that dot the strip malls up and down Bellaire Boulevard. I could easily do a top 50 list in Chinatown, and I am emphatically not kidding. So I decided to focus instead on simply my ten favorite places in Chinatown. These are the restaurants I visit most often, the ones I implore others to try and the ones I dream about when it's been too long between visits.
10. Cafe Kubo's
One of the hippest and yet most casual places to spend an evening in Chinatown is at Cafe Kubo's, the younger and far more mod sister of the staid Kubo's in Rice Village. Instead of focusing on sushi, however, Cafe Kubo's offers a much more traditional Japanese fast-food menu of dishes such as curried pork cutlets over rice, bento boxes of fried chicken and bowls of tonkatsu ramen that complement its easygoing vibe. Happy hour runs every day of the week here, and the food and drink specials make it a huge draw in the evenings.
9. Seoul House
Seoul House is the laid-back little brother of the huge cook-your-own-food Korean restaurants that populate Spring Branch and parts of Chinatown. The bulgogi and bibimbap are as good as I've had anywhere, and the stir-fried veggies with clear noodles and seafood pancake are excellent. Serve yourself from the banchan cart that flanks one wall, and be sure to get at least one bowl of haemul dolsot — the rice crisps up perfectly in Seoul House's stone bowls every time.
8. Pho Binh by Night
It used to be that the Chinatown go-to for late-night dining was Tan Tan. And while it's still a strong contender for the list, you can get far better food at Pho Binh by Night until 3 a.m on Fridays and Saturdays. (It's open until midnight the rest of the week.) Pho Binh is an offshoot of the immensely popular Pho Binh trailer in south Houston — owned by the very same family, so you know the pho is still every bit as amazing — and offers a specialty rarely seen elsewhere: bone marrow, which you can add to your pho like so much meat butter.
7. Saigon Pagolac
This is where the Asian community goes for "Vietnamese fajitas"; bo 7 mon (beef seven ways) and crispy; whole-fried catfish. At Saigon Pagolac, you cook your own tenderloin slices on a miniature black cast-iron skillet heated by a butane-fired tabletop cooker. The steak is served with chopped vegetables and exotic herbs that exude flavors of mint, licorice, cinnamon and pepper. And if you're a pescatarian, you'll want to order an entire one of Saigon Pagolac's crunchy-skinned, nearly caramelized catfish for yourself.
6. Pho Ga Dakao
Pho Ga Dakao is on the sleepier end of Chinatown, but that doesn't stop this pho ga (chicken soup) joint from being packed every day of the week. It's open late on the weekends and even for breakfast — any time is a good time for the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup, after all. Stick with the pho ga here; 11 different combinations are available, but the "Dakao chicken rice noodle soup special" with everything (including hearts, gizzards, livers and tripe) is the most flavorful and one of the most popular orders.
5. Fu Fu Cafe
Robb Walsh said it best back in 2007, when the Houston Press gave Fu Fu Cafe the Best of Houston® award for Best Dumplings:
"Fu Fu's awesome soup dumplings appear on the menu disguised as 'A26 Steam Pork Bun (4) $2.50.' The only way to appreciate the true genius of the soup dumpling is to burst the whole thing in your mouth. That way, the soup combines with the soft dough and the loose meatball to form a wonderfully slurpy bite of soup, meat and dough. By all means try them, but remember, they come to the table extremely hot. Wait until they cool!"
Fu Fu is also another late-night dining favorite; it's open until 4 a.m. on the weekends and 2 a.m. the rest of the week.
4. Sushi Miyagi
Don't be fooled by appearances: Sushi Miyagi, though nondescript from the outside, hosts an amazing, authentically Japanese restaurant inside. Miyagi, the sushi chef and owner, has honed his craft over 30 years and serves up both traditional Japanese dishes like stellar agedashi tofu as well as more American treats like giant hand rolls. The sashimi here is similarly wonderful, and lunch specials — which extend even to Saturday — are a great time to get your Japanese fix without blowing the bank. Just don't expect a quick meal; Miyagi and his elderly wife are the only employees here, so be prepared to take your time.
3. Banana Leaf
Regardless of which location you choose — the first, smaller one where there's always an hour's wait or the new location...where there's still usually a wait — Banana Leaf is the perfect place to experience Malaysian food for the first time. The friendly service and exciting dishes, such as the sweetly spicy sambal shrimp, chow fun, soft-shell crab and the hand-tossed roti canai, make the restaurant a destination despite its casual atmosphere and low prices. Take advantage of its generous BYOB policy and bring a bottle of Riesling to supplement the savory pan-Asian cuisine.
2. House of Bowls
House of Bowls offers perhaps Houston's most authentic Hong Kong-style food experience in a festive, colorful atmosphere. Bring a group and prepare to eat a lot of food (without spending a lot of money). Can't-miss dishes include the pitch-perfect beef chow fun dry-style with fresh noodles and the curried shrimp fried rice. But for something different, indulge in a plate of crunchy, deep-fried chicken wings or House of Bowls' crowning glory: Hong Kong-style French toast stuffed with peanut butter and topped with sweetened condensed milk.
1. Mala Sichuan
Mala Sichuan represents a new direction for Chinatown as one of the new "second-generation" restaurants that focus on serving authentic food (Sichuanese cuisine in this case) but with more Western elements like snappy service and an easy-to-decipher menu. Owner Cori Xiong's all-Sichuan team of chefs also ensures that nearly every dish to come out of the kitchen is a winner, from the ginger-sauce-braised, softball-size pork meatballs and tea-smoked duck to more exotic foods like the red-chile oil-laced Couple's Lung Dish (made mostly with beef tendons, not lungs) or ma po tofu and the ultra-spicy live tilapia dishes that are the restaurant's most popular with Chinese patrons.
On the Menu
I Ate My First McRib
And I regret it.
I made it through 32 years without tasting a McRib. Over three decades spent tasting and eating all other manner of offensive foods — yet a McRib had never passed my lips until last Thursday. I can't say I regret my meal. It goes deeper than that: a sense that I gave in, sheeplike, to a national phenomenon whose promises — no matter how meager — were always going to fall short of my expectations.
I knew I wouldn't like or even understand the McRib and was content to go the rest of my life without tasting one. Fast food and I have a strained relationship as it is except for a few soft spots: McDonald's coffee, Whataburger taquitos, Jack in the Box tacos at 1 a.m.
I respect — perhaps even admire — the technology and ingenuity involved in creating an identical meal across thousands of different chain restaurants 365 days a year, 24 hours a day in many cases...but the product is rarely something I'm interested in consuming. And those same massive food systems that are, in part, responsible for creating clone versions of Big Macs or Whoppers every single day are also responsible for the woeful industrialization of our agricultural systems and farms. Those fast-food chains are, in part, responsible for our nation's deepening battle against obesity, hypertension, diabetes and a whole host of other health issues.
And, quite frankly, the McRib always looked simply disgusting, like a flattened condom stuffed with Ol' Roy brand cat food and slathered with untrustworthy sauce between two buns that looked like the plastic set that came with my children's grocery store set when I was six years old.
To a Texan, the concept of barbecued pork is reserved for a handful of items: pork butts and ribs, both left on the smoker for hours and neither coated in sticky-sweet sauce. We don't do pulled pork sandwiches here, either, so the idea of a pork sandwich — pulled or not — doesn't appeal to me either...especially one from McDonald's.
But I let curiosity get the better of me last week when I logged onto Facebook one morning.
"I would like to see you write a complete review on the McRib," read a request on my wall from frequent commenter Fatty FatBastard. "And it should be the cover story."
Less than 24 hours later, I was hitting my third McDonald's of the afternoon and cursing Fatty's real name as I searched desperately for one that still had the damn sandwich in stock. Each one I approached beckoned with a sign heralding the glories of the limited-time McRib, yet a closer look at the signs revealed tiny stickers saying simply: "Sold out."
Along with a keen sense of irritation, my curiosity was growing still stronger. If the stupid sandwiches are sold out everywhere, they must be at least decent — right? People couldn't be buying out the sandwiches if they tasted like Ol' Roy.
Finally, I found myself in the drive-thru lane of the McDonald's on North Main, where a cheerful-sounding Hispanic woman was imploring me through the speaker to add another McRib to my order for only $1.
You have enough McRibs here to tack them on like apple pies? I wanted to yell back at her. Send them to the other McDonald's so people don't have to waste $20 worth of gas driving around town like pork-crazed assholes trying to find them!
Instead, I pathetically contemplated actually adding the extra McRib to my order. It's only one dollar, I reasoned. I deserve it.
I shook my head and snapped out of the disgusting food-as-reward mind-set I fall into far too often — a mind-set, I might add, that's once again encouraged by deals such as these at fast-food chains such as this one. (Besides, the brownie bites I'd added onto my 1 a.m. Jack in the Box order the night before had been woeful. And those were only $1, too.)
Back at the office after nearly an hour on the road, I actually tore into my McRib with a voracity that both appalled and astonished me. A growling stomach was making all of my decisions suddenly, but even after the first few hunger-blinded bites, I could tell it had been a mistake.
Here's the thing: The McRib does not taste terrible, except for the fiddly, fleshy little nubbins extruding from the sides that are meant to represent "ribs." In fact — full disclosure — I ate the entire thing.
I felt so hollow afterward that it was as if my stomach had shifted entirely outside my body, as though my abdominal cavity was rejecting it in shame. This was a terrible thing to have eaten and I had no real excuse doing so. It contained no nutritional value whatsoever, and unlike the questionable tacos and other junk food fare I occasionally consume, it didn't even have the benefit of being so delicious as to excuse its negligible health benefits.
The "pork" inside the McRib tastes quite obviously fake. It has a curious spongy texture that allows your teeth to slide into the meat with almost no give whatsoever. It's like you're not eating real meat at all but something materialized on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise or a piece of food that's fast fading in some airport during the course of the Langoliers. It's just...weird.
The pickles and onions, with their very real and very appropriate crunch, absolved the meat somewhat of its off-putting texture. But the bread suffered the same fate as the meat, falling apart in my mouth like dust as if it had never been real in the first place. I spent the next hour trying and failing to understand how there can be any passion around such a dull, lifeless thing. How is there a clamor for the McRib? In what way is it "epic" or "legendary"?
I am left today with the disappointing knowledge that there is a huge segment of my fellow Americans who look forward to this creepy fake meat every year with a hunger that borders on the pathological. I am not judging their taste — taste, after all, is subjective — but rather judging the quality of the food that people have come to revere. This silly, false thing. This vague improvement over potted meat.
I cringe as much as the next person when I hear words like "organic," "artisan" or "craft" overused or, worse, misapplied. But I'd far rather suffer a surfeit of foods in our nation that are leaning toward the real end of the spectrum than the fake. Because there is really no excuse for the McRib, and my life is poorer for my having tasted it.
For Your Health
Hold the Wheat
Houston's best gluten-free dining options.
Along with the increasing number of gluten-free diners are those diners who are searching for restaurants that specialize in gluten-free menu items yet are still mainstream enough to accommodate their friends and family. Luckily for them, more and more restaurants are doing just that.
One of the easiest routes to take as a GF diner is, of course, to familiarize yourself with cuisines which are naturally free of gluten. This means getting cozy with South Asian ethnic foods like Indian (steer clear of naan and puri shells), Pakistani and Thai or learning more about sushi — just be sure to ask for (or bring your own) gluten-free soy sauce.
Ethiopian is another easy option for GF diners: Injera, which forms the base of most meals, is made of teff flour and is naturally gluten-free — but also extremely nutritious. You use injera like a utensil to scoop up your food, which can be anything from all-vegetarian (lentils, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, greens and more) to meat-heavy (doro wot — or spicy chicken stew — is a personal favorite as is the raw beef treatment called kitfo).
But back to the idea of being gluten-free and mainstream. Here is a list of options, grouped by category, to please every palate:
While chains aren't always known for the quality of their food, the spots below are notable for a few reasons: They're conveniently located throughout the city, they're relatively inexpensive and all offer entire gluten-free menus — not just a few paltry GF substitutions. Outback was one of the first chains to offer a separate GF menu, and P.F. Chang's currently offers one of the largest. (One more fun fact: Saint Arnold brews the beer locally for the BJ's spots in and around Houston.)
BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse
Rockfish Seafood Grill
The fact of the matter is that most Mexican joints are safely gluten-free if you abstain from flour tortillas, sopapillas and the like. Corn tortillas — especially those filled with barbacoa or al pastor from taco trucks — are one of the easiest bets for the GF diner. But here are a few places that really take gluten-free to the next level.
Pizza is one of the items that many GF diners miss the most. Fortunately, more pizza places — both large and small — are catching on to this and offering gluten-free crusts that are every bit as good as standard wheat-flour crusts.
California Pizza Kitchen
Russo's New York Pizzeria
Sure, you can get a bunless burger at any old burger joint. But sometimes you just want those two fluffy buns holding your meat sandwich together. These four spots will gladly throw a gluten-free bun into the mix for you — and in the case of Becks Prime, you'll find plenty of other GF options that aren't burgers, too. Same goes for Guru Burgers & Crepes, where you can also get GF versions of its signature crepes.
Guru Burgers & Crepes
Next to pizza, pasta is another item that many GF diners find themselves missing. It doesn't have to be that way at these Italian restaurants, where you can indulge not only in naturally GF dishes such as gnocchi and risotto, but house-made GF pastas at places such as Coppa and Prego. And at chains like Carrabba's, you'll find entire GF menus.
Coppa Ristorante Italiano
Being gluten-free need not mean sticking to chains or having to make everything at home. You can get fancy, too, with anything from Texas quail with a summer corn tamale and huitlacoche sauce at RDG + Bar Annie to flourless chocolate cake at Mockingbird Bistro. While not all of the places listed below have separate GF menus, they're all notable for being extremely flexible and adaptive to the needs of GF diners.
RDG + Bar Annie
Vic & Anthony's
Cute & Casual
Like most of the places listed above, these are non-chain spots throughout Houston that are receptive to GF diners even if the restaurants themselves don't have dedicated GF menus. Most of the items on the menu at Roots Bistro, for example, are naturally gluten-free, such as its raw "squashta" tossed with spinach, tomatoes, carrots, beets and a ginger dressing. And at Ruggles Green, you'll find a handy color-coded menu that denotes which of its many items are vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free or all three.
Kenny & Ziggy's
Vegan & Vegetarian
Vegan doesn't necessarily mean gluten-free; after all, it's easy to make vegan wraps, crackers, bread or other products from wheat, rye, barley or other grains containing gluten — so beware. But when you're eating at vegan or vegetarian places that specialize in raw food, your chances of encountering gluten products drop significantly. Ditto for places such as Radical Eats, which are both vegan and Mexican.
Green Seed Vegan
Finding a food truck that serves GF items can be tough. Fortunately, there are places like Bare Bowls — which offers dishes such as market-fresh vegetables on basmati rice — and Monster PB&J, where all of its sandwiches come with a GF bread option.
Green Seed Vegan
What's a cup of coffee without a pastry or snack on the side? These coffee shops are notable for offering goodies from some of our favorite vegan bakeries around town, such as Sinfull Bakery, as well as raw treats from folks like Pat Greer.
Black Hole Coffee House
Taft Street Coffee
Waldo's Coffee House
Openings and Closings
Surfing Cowboys and plenty of pizza.
Tintos, the tapas joint in River Oaks which featured one of my 100 Favorite Dishes of 2012, is closing. Owner Alberto Alfonzo told Eater Houston that Tintos would close on December 31 but plans to reopen as PESCA: World Seafood one week later.
"PESCA will feature seafood preparations from Mexico, Asia, Spain, Italy and the Caribbean that Alfonzo has learned in his 16-year career," wrote Eater Houston editor Eric Sandler. Interestingly, Alfonzo also told Sandler that he felt Houstonians had a difficult time embracing the concept of tapas — yet wants to reopen Tintos at a later date and in a different spot in 2013. If it does reopen, those espárragos gratinados had better be on the menu.
That Pizza Place on Ella has closed and — like Tintos — will be reopening as a new concept, albeit under new ownership. "Eater has learned that BRC/Liberty Kitchen chef and co-owner Lance Fegen will be opening a new restaurant called Surfing Cowboys," wrote Sandler. It will be the second surfing-inspired restaurant Fegen has operated, after Glass Wall (which he left in October 2010 to open BRC Gastropub).
In openings, two Houston restaurants have new locations. Luigi's Pizzeria just opened its second location, at 4505 Bissonnet in Bellaire. Writes our excited tipster: "Already packing them in. Best pizza in town!!" (We're big fans of Luigi's, too — especially the chicken wings.) Meanwhile, Tradição Brazilian Steakhouse has a new location near Sugar Land on the Southwest Freeway between Wilcrest and West Airport.
Also open this week: Brooklyn Athletic Club from Fegen's former partner at Glass Wall, Shepard Ross, and the former chef at BRC Gastropub, Jeff Axline.
And in upcoming openings, look for Volare Original Pizzeria to open soon at 2017 S. Shepherd near Welch. Owner Cara Cox teamed up with chef Ara Malekian — who helped Wolfgang Puck create his own line of pizzas — to create pizzas that aren't quite Neapolitan and aren't quite NYC-style but something in between.
"The Volare concept is based on Cara's favorite pizzerias in New York City, but designed with Houstonians' palates in mind," said Malekian in a press release. Expect toppings such as brussels sprouts with house-smoked pork belly or local venison sausage with wild mushrooms.
The 1,600-square-foot restaurant will seat 36 indoors and 24 in the outdoor beer garden, situated behind the restaurant. Volare will be open daily, with all-day service from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The full-service restaurant, which will feature pizzas, paninis, crostinis, local craft beer and a list of boutique wines created by noted sommelier Antonio Gianola, is slated to open in January.
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