Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: May and Eddie Chan Of Café Chino — China In Houston

Houston is known as a multicultural city — a true melting pot of people and cuisines from around the world. This is the final installment of our miniseries where we take a look at the chefs responsible for creating authentic dishes from several different nations right here in Houston.

As we covered in part one of our Chef Chat, it took Eddie and May Chan years of working in other peoples’ restaurants before being able to finally secure one of their own. Once they did, though, recognition came quickly. The original Café Chino was in Rice Village for more than 20 years before it was relocated off the feeder of Highway 59 between Edloe and Buffalo Speedway.

It wasn’t their only restaurant. L’Asiatique, a French-Chinese concept on Mid Lane, came soon after. Later, there were several other concepts, too: a second Café Chino in the downtown tunnels under Chase Tower, Romeo’s Burgers, Chino Chino Sushi & Dim Sum Bar and Pacific Rim, which received a best new restaurant nod from the Houston Chronicle in 1998. At the time, Pacific Rim was one of the few fusion restaurants in Houston.

Eddie Chan credits some of their success to being willing to use local PR firms to help spread the word, including Dick Dace of The Epicurean Publicist. “All those PR firms helped me. Not too many Chinese restaurants use PR. They don’t believe in that.”

Eddie is now 63 and May is 60. Over the years, it became too unwieldy to continue dealing with the rigors of running several restaurants. At one point, they had three open all in Rice Village at the same time. “Back then, we were only 40-something and had a lot of energy!” exclaimed Eddie. “Plus we had a family,” added May. These days, they only run Café Chino.

They had something in common with another Rice Village stalwart, D’Amico’s Italian Market Café: the patronage of Dr. Red Duke, the trauma surgeon who, among many other accomplishments, helped save the life of Texas governor John Connally, who was shot during the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Both places named a dish for their famous customer. Café Chino has a “Dr. Red Duke Salmon” while D’Amico’s has a Red Duke Pizza, with artichoke hearts, bell peppers and romano cheese with marinara sauce.

Six years ago, they had to relocate Café Chino, and Eddie says why without hesitation. “The rent! It increased forty percent!” May elaborated. “Our lease was up. Eddie tried to negotiate with the landlord and he wouldn’t. He said, ‘Eddie, if you don’t take that space, people will line up to get it.’”

To this day, the former Café Chino space still sits empty. So much for that line of potential new tenants.

The Chans picked the current location because it was still close to their regular clients, but they admit it’s not ideal. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the customer base they’d built up over the years, it might not have worked out at all. Two prior Chinese restaurants in the same space failed. “At night time, you don’t come into this neighborhood. There’s nothing to do except dine! Dining in—that’s it.” said Eddie.

There have been a few unexpected benefits, though. Eddie says to-go and delivery order sales went up two hundred percent. He also has a much bigger focus on wine at the new place. “I don’t sell much liquor,” he said, “but wine sells much better.” It’s something he’s trying to learn more about. “The wine salesman comes in every two weeks. ‘Educate me!’ I tell him.”

Just after closing the downtown Café Chino, May Chan managed to pull a two-year stint at Houston Country Club under chef Fritz Gitschner. (He was more recently the executive chef at 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, which closed a few months ago). The move was driven simply by a desire to learn more and experience something different.

After only six months at Houston Country Club, she was promoted from sous chef to chef. “I got my own crew, my own kitchen and I managed it,” she said proudly. It was a time of growth for May, thanks in part to being pushed and encouraged by Gitschner, who had her sometimes prepare dishes for the chef’s table, as well as compete in a competition sanctioned by the American Culinary Foundation. (She won third place. The framed certificate and medal is on the wall at Café Chino.)

Eddie tends to work the front of the house and gets to know customer preferences. He says, “I know what they like. Some have allergies. Others want gluten-free. Chinese food has a lot of different sauces so I try to balance the dishes. If you have a party of three, I’ll recommend three dishes with different tastes to try and balance it out. Most Asian restaurants don’t have that courtesy.”

For new customers, he’ll ask their preferences. “It’s not about my preference,” he says. “I’ll ask, ‘What do you like?’ I’ll suggest a couple of dishes and describe the ingredients.”

May often runs specials of dishes she’s developed on-the-fly. From the regular menu, one of the most popular is poached Chilean Seabass with Asian Pesto. The pesto includes ginger, scallion, cilantro, cashews, olive oil, salt and pepper. Local author Erin Hicks enjoyed the dish so much that she included the recipe in her book, Houston Classic Seafood.

“It doesn’t sound so much ‘Asian’ or like typical Chinese food,” said May with a smile, “but sometimes I want to use Asian ingredients and fix—“

“—something with a Western flair,” finished Eddie. May nodded her head in agreement.

Some of their other popular dishes include Jalapeño Chicken—chicken tenderloin sautéed with jalapeño, cilantro, ginger, onion and a little lemon pepper. “We make it in bite-sized pieces,” says Eddie. “It will melt in your mouth. It’s a popular, healthy food.”

One interesting dish they make is snow pea “greens.” The stalk isn’t edible, but the leaves are. Eddie says that after its sautéed with a little garlic, it’s similar to spinach.

As often as they can, they go out, buy fresh fish, such as branzini, and May will make it as a special. Eddie even texts their regular customers to let them know when it’s available. “I’ll steam it with a little soy, ginger and olive oil,” says May. Once it’s ready, Eddie will take the fish to the table and debone it in front of customers. The type of fish just depends on what’s available. “Right now, I have some corvina from California,” says Eddie.

The Chans have been in Houston’s restaurant scene for so long that they’ve seen their customers’ kids start out in highchairs, grow into adults and then start bringing their own children to dine. “We’d know the grandfather, who is now gone, and now the grandkid comes in here,” says Eddie.

They tried dim sum service for a while, but it didn’t work out. May explained that they were “out of the area” for it, meaning the restaurant isn’t in Chinatown. Eddie says it has to do with what their regulars are looking for. “Most of my clientele are American,” he said. “American-Chinese, too, but mostly American.” Still, there are a few dim sum dishes on the menu, like shumai, shrimp dumplings and barbecue pork buns for those who want them.

May’s not bitter when something like that doesn’t work out. “If you don’t try, you don’t know,” she said.

When asked what else they would like for people to know, Eddie exclaimed, “We're still here! I appreciate our customers of 30-something years. Without them, we wouldn’t still be here.” 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook