"Chinatown" seems like an awfully lopsided epithet for Houston's enormous and vibrant pan-Asian community, straddling Beltway 8 on the southwest side like an entire city unto itself. There are Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, sure. But there are also Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Laotian, Taiwanese, Filipino, Indonesian restaurants and just as many that are crazy, exciting, fascinating fusions of multiple Asian cuisines in one.
It used to be that Houston's Chinatown was limited to the small warehouse district on the east end of downtown, home to a small but robust assortment of Asian supermarkets and restaurants. There are still remnants of "Old Chinatown" left in EaDo now, but the base has moved out to the suburbs, where land is cheap and Asian immigrants have built an empire on the mostly treeless plain between Sugar Land and Westchase.
Given that the restaurant density in this area is roughly equivalent to the population density of Vatican City, there is a nearly endless list of places to choose from. Taking that into account, the list below is more of a jumping-off point -- an assortment of sure bets and easily accessible restaurants -- for those looking to explore the vast swath of Chinatown's amazing culinary options. Leave your own choices for Chinatown's best restaurants in the comments section below.
10. Lee's Sandwiches, 11210 Bellaire Boulevard
What to get here: ice cream, cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and freshly made deli manjoo cakes. Lee's might not have the best banh mi in town -- so much for always ordering the dish in the restaurant's name -- but it does have some of the best desserts. Ice cream flavors run the gamut from vanilla and rocky road to the floral taro and the rotting corpse-scented durian. Bonus: The ice cream, like the bread and the deli manjoo cakes, is made in-house. Take your kids, and they'll enjoy watching the deli manjoo cakes -- tiny corn cakes filled with custard -- come hot off the line and into their little mouths.
9. Classic Kitchen Restaurant, 9888 Bellaire Boulevard
What to get there: breakfast. Yes, there is such a thing as Chinese breakfast, even if you don't hear about it very much in Houston. You didn't think the Chinese just skip the most important meal of the day, right? The breakfast served here is more traditionally Taiwanese -- items like you tiao (fried dough that tastes similar to donut sticks) and dan bing (egg pancakes made with scallions, wrapped inside a tortilla) -- and not entirely removed from a typical Western breakfast. Don't mind the horrible service; you're on a breakfast adventure, after all, so just have fun and ignore the surly attitudes of the waitstaff.
8. Tofu Village, 9889 Bellaire Boulevard
What to get there: bibimbap, bulgogi and soondobu. The fun thing about ordering Korean food is how bouncy and joyful the names of the dishes sound tumbling out of your mouth. While Tofu Village isn't the best Korean restaurant in the city, it's the best in Chinatown. The bibimbap is especially fun to order; the rice, vegetables and meat (or seafood, if you choose) are served up in a piping hot stone bowl, sort of the Korean equivalent of a comal. You do get what you pay for here, however; although the food is cheap compared to other Korean restaurants, the service is abysmal. But you didn't come here to be treated like royalty, right?
7. Dim Sum King, 9160 Bellaire Boulevard
What to get there: dim sum, any time of the day or week (except Tuesdays). It's a long-held brunch tradition to head out for dim sum with the family on Sundays. But sometimes you just want dim sum without all the fuss or scheduling constraints. Dim Sum King serves up Hong Kong-style dim sum all day long and even has a picture menu to help the uninitiated choose their dishes. Favorites are the nicely charred turnip cakes, the juicy beef balls and the just-sweet-enough sesame balls with red bean paste for dessert.
6. Crawfish & Beignets, 11201 Bellaire Boulevard (inside the Hong Kong City Mall food court)
What to get there: Well, crawfish...but not beignets. One of the more unusual pairings on the list comes to us courtesy of Houston's Vietnamese population (the largeset in Texas and the third largest in the country). Crawfish is very popular with the strongly French-influenced Vietnamese culture, and traditional New Orleanian foods like beignets and po-boys are being adopted too. When crawfish is in season, you get an enormous and cheap bag of boiled crawfish to feast on at the food court tables along with an assortment of sauces. What about those beignets? The restaurant stopped serving them at some point a few years back, but don't let that get you down. Just grab a bubble tea from Tea House next door for dessert.
5. Cafe Kubo's, 9889 Bellaire Boulevard
What to get there: sushi and curry; yes, curry. This offshoot of Kubo's, the expensive and popular sushi restaurant in Rice Village, is a much more casual iteration of its older sister and therefore fits in perfectly with the vibe of Chinatown. And unlike so many Japanese restaurants in Houston, this one is actually owned and operated by Japanese people (the Chinese run a predominance of Asian kitchens in Houston, no matter what kind of cuisine is being cooked up). The fish is exquisitely fresh and high-quality despite the inexpensive price, but be warned that the selection is a bit small.
4. Tan Tan, 6816 Ranchester
What to get there: hot pot and fried rice cakes. Although it's not quite the time of year for hot pot, come winter Tan Tan will be crowded with people enjoying this interactive, communal and hearty dish. In the meantime, order the fried rice cakes as an appetizer no matter what else you get along with a salted lemonade for the heat. Tan Tan also has more Americanized Chinese dishes that will please your parents or kids, and it's even open late -- until 3 a.m. -- for all you night owls.
3. Fu Fu Cafe, 9889 Bellaire Boulevard
What to get there: dumplings (soup dumplings -- xiao long tong bao -- or Beijing-style pan-fried dumplings). Although it's always a toss up between Fu Fu, QQ and Lai Lai for Chinatown's best dumplings, Fu Fu is generally the most solid contender. The service here is only slightly better than at QQ, next door (the best service is at Lai Lai), but the food more than makes up for it. If you aren't full after all the smoky, juicy dumplings, get an order of savory scallion pancakes too.
2. Sichuan Cuisine, 9114 Bellaire Boulevard
What to get there: spicy food. Like it hot? You'll love Sichuan Cuisine. This is probably the least "accessible" restaurant on this list, as far as Westerners are concerned. I once ate there during July, and there was Christmas music playing over the sound system; I fell in love with it even more. The truly adventurous will relish the duck tongues with jalapenos, one of the best items on the menu, but more mainstream items like tea-smoked duck (not spicy) and boiled fish in spicy sauce (definitely spicy) will also satisfy.
1. Banana Leaf, 9889 Bellaire Boulevard
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What to get there: nearly anything off the enormous menu, but especially the roti canai. There's literally something here for everyone, from Malaysian food (its main focus) to Indonesian, Thai and Chinese dishes. Get a seat with a kitchen view to watch them twirl the sheets of roti canai (Malaysian flatbread) high in the air before serving a steaming hot plate to you, and don't miss dishes like taro-wrapped shrimp, stir-fried crispy egg noodle with seafood and a fish head casserole large enough to feed four. Bonus: Unlike so many Chinatown establishments, the service is truly exceptional here and you can BYOB.
With so many restaurants in Chinatown, it's a sure bet that some of your favorites were left off the list (Star Snow Ice, Cafe La Tea, Patisserie Jungle Cafe and numerous pho joints spring to mind as deserving of honorable mention). Let us know which Chinatown restaurants you think are can't-miss joints in the comments section below.
If you enjoyed this Top 10 list, check out our other restaurant roundups:
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