Cheap Eats In Chinatown at Xiong's Cafe

If you're looking for cheap eats in the form of dumplings, noodles, and rice plates, look no further than Xiong's Cafe, located on Bellaire Boulevard in a strip mall behind the more popular Sinh Sinh Restaurant. The modest hole-in-the-wall, comprised of two small rooms, offers no-frills, simple Chinese food via counter service in a family-friendly environment.

I stopped by on a random midweek evening around 6 p.m. to try their pan-fried dumplings. Chef Benjy Mason of Down House, who lived in China when he was younger, had cited it as his go-to place for traditional jiaozi, or dumplings, and I had been meaning to try it ever since. Xiong's was also awarded Best Dumplings by the Houston Press in 2008.

The main dining room was brightly lit with fluorescent lighting, its wooden tables and chairs reminiscent of a typical neighborhood restaurant you'd find in China. For decor, the wall was adorned with simply framed, faded portraits of pretty Asian women, presumably old-time Chinese movie stars or models.

A young woman stood behind a small stand topped with a cash register and sheaf of laminated menus. I grabbed one to read, thankful that it was in English, because the entire wall behind her was a menu in Chinese characters only.

The menu was comprised of appetizers and simple day-to-day fare, including dumplings, noodle soups, and rice plates. I ordered the pan-fried dumplings (8 dumplings for $5.95), and because they were so inexpensive decided to order a bowl of spicy wontons, too. After paying about $11 and change (cash only), I was given a number and left the counter to find a small table.

Walking into the second room, there was another larger counter with another cash register. Part of the same ownership, this second counter was dedicated to drinks such as boba tea and desserts like shaved ice.

I found my table, placed my number down, then went over to the condiment stand to pick up utensils and make my dumpling sauce. There was a nice spread of pre-mixed dumpling sauce, garlic, vinegar, ginger, and other spices for you to concoct a sauce of your own. There was also a big pot of hot millet porridge to self-serve, so I poured myself a small bowl and settled down with my sauces, waiting for my dishes to arrive.

The millet porridge was hot and bland. I saw another woman adding spice to it, but I just scooped it up as is, enjoying the textured watered-down flavor of lightly salted millet as I observed the tables of small families with toddlers and young children, some of whom openly stared at me, the only solo female in the place.

The spicy wontons arrived first, delivered to me by a senior gentleman with weathered hands and a slight limp. I thanked him as I eyed the dumplings with satisfaction. They looked fresh and plump, nestled in a bed of spicy Szechuan-type oil and sprinkled with crushed peanuts. And boy, were they tasty. I tried them dunked in the spicy red sauce they came with, which had heat but didn't burn, and then tried them with my vinegary dumpling sauce that I'd mixed with garlic and ginger. I liked them both ways and easily finished the dish.

By the time the pan-fried dumplings arrived, I'd polished off the bowl of wontons, and it's a good thing I did. Though they were massive in size, I was much less impressed with the dumplings, finding the dumpling wrapper too thick and doughy for my taste. I ate one or two, but left the rest, and made a mental note to come back for the wontons, for the plate of rice with pork belly, and for the fried chicken wings (I'd seen them delivered to another table, and they looked pretty darn good). I hear the beef noodle soup is worth a try, as well.

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