First Look at E Tao

"You should try the stuffed chicken wings," said our young waitress at E Tao as my friend Dr. Ricky and I considered which items to order from the restaurant's broad menu for dinner on Sunday night.

"All the Chinese people" -- she indicated to the table next to us -- "or, um, Asians...whatever you call them, order those. They're really popular." Ricky, who's Filipino -- or, um, Asian -- stifled a grunt of annoyance as he asked what was in the wings.

"Rice," our waitress responded. "And pork, I think." She wasn't selling us on the wings, but we decided to order them anyway, since all the cool Chinese kids are doing it apparently. Our waitress may have had a tenuous grasp of ethnicity, but she was bang-on when it came to the wings: They were the high point of an already tasty meal at this new Chinese restaurant on the upper level of Galleria IV.

I was initially intrigued by E Tao when I saw two of my most trustworthy palates Tweeting about its a few weeks ago: local news anchor Miya Shay and fellow food blogger Misha Govshteyn, better known as Tastybitz. Said Shay: "Giving E Tao a try inside the @HoustonGalleria w/ fellow Chinese folks. XLB is awesome!"

Those XLB are xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, which are somewhat difficult to find in Houston outside of Chinatown mainstays like FuFu. Or, rather, good XLB are difficult to find here. Reading Alison Cook's post on E Tao's soup dumplings sealed the deal; I needed to try E Tao, as quickly as possible.

The restaurant is a bit of an anomaly here in the Galleria, which isn't lacking for restaurants, but is lacking for good, reasonably priced restaurants. For this reason alone, E Tao will undoubtedly be packed for the duration of its stay here next to Nordstrom. And although the prices are higher than what you'd find in Chinatown, you're not in Chinatown, are you? You're in a place where the rent is significantly higher as well, and at least here you can go ice skating afterward as a bonus.

Ricky and I ordered three more things off the menu that night: pork dumplings in an intriguing "Sichuan peanut" sauce, beef "brisket" in a "Chinese brown sauce" and a plate of Sichuan-style eggplant. There is no burn here to the food, as you would expect with Sichuan cuisine, and that was a bit of a disappointment. But I don't know yet if it's because I'm white or because the kitchen simply doesn't do spice.

Lack of heat notwithstanding, the eggplant was wonderful, simply cut into huge, rough hunks and topped with a glutinous sauce that Ricky discerned had been thickened with arrowroot. It almost tasted like a richer, thicker version of a sweet and sour sauce, dotted with an assortment of peas, corn and carrots.

The "brisket," too, was excellent, tough and chewy pieces that tasted more like tripe -- not that I was complaining -- with lovely, thick and crunchy leaves of braised lettuce serving as a textural counterpoint.

But it was those wings that had Ricky and I both raving: crispy, buttery skin and moist chicken wrapped around savory, sticky rice and sweet bites of Chinese sausage. It wasn't until the chicken was all gone and we were completely full, in fact, that we realized we hadn't ordered the XLB for which we'd come.

We weren't terribly concerned, though. As Ricky pointed out, you can get great soup dumplings at FuFu any time, but we'd never encountered stuffed chicken wings like this before. Besides, it gave us a reason to return to E Tao. I'm already eagerly planning my next visit.

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