Though there are many notable Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurants in Houston — among them, Fung’s Kitchen, Shanghai Restaurant, and Ocean Palace — all are located in the Southwest side of town on or in the near vicinity of the Chinatown area of Bellaire Boulevard.
Ginger & Fork, the new restaurant by Mary Li, is the first with aspirations to provide an authentic, upscale Cantonese experience inside the loop.
Located in the former digs of La Fisheria off of Shepherd Boulevard near I-10, Ginger and Fork has done a great job of transforming the space to reflect its new identity. Gone is the powder blue and orange paint, the blue Mexican tiles and beach-side theme of its former occupant. In its place is a chic space decorated primarily in black and white, with pops of red and orange. Hand-painted wall murals of cityscapes, a large dragon, and a Chinese mountain landscape tastefully underscore the restaurant’s overall Far East theme and heritage.
“I wanted to create a place of friendship. I wanted to reconnect a lot of my old friends, along with meeting new friends, to come to my place to enjoy a meal along with wonderful cocktails and pairing it with wonderful wines also,” says Li. Though her family had owned restaurants when she was younger, Li spent the last 24 years at Tony Mandola’s in River Oaks. She was the the general manager and bar manager there before striking out on her own. This is her first restaurant.
Dressed in a bright red Chinese top, Li is obviously in her element in the front of the house, greeting tables of guests and friends with easy charm, smiles and effortless hospitality. “When people hear that we’re opening inside the loop, they automatically think that it’s going to be Asian fusion,” she says, “but that’s not what we’re trying to do here. I wanted to offer traditional Cantonese cuisine with high quality ingredients. I also wanted to be able to give people quality craft cocktails and a great wine list.”
When you sit down at Ginger & Fork, you’re handed four menus. There’s a main menu, printed on one side of an 8 by 14 inch sheet of paper and a Craft Cocktail menu featuring cocktails made with everything from Zignum Mezcal to Italian Prosecco, to Buffalo Trace Bourbon or Rittenhouse Rye — not your average Chinese restaurant cocktail list by any means. A two-page wine list offers a selection of 20 wines by the glass, and a wide variety of well priced bottles from all over the map, priced affordably in the $40 to $50 range. For lunch, there’s a small $20 two-course business lunch menu as well.
The main menu reads a lot like what you’d find at a chef driven restaurant. Under “Small eats” (translation: appetizer) there are items like steamed dumplings, fried egg rolls, and Peking duck bao. A small section of soups has an interesting sounding “Ching Po Leung” tonifying and healthy Cantonese 9 herb pork bone broth. Under “Grains & Noodles,” you’ll find squid ink fried rice, curry coated noodles, fried crispy egg noodles and silk egg chow fun. Then there are “Main Eats,” which are further delineated by “Sea” (seafood), “Land” (meat) and “Earth” (vegan/vegetarian).
As a media guest of the restaurant, I tried to order a cross section of items from each menu category: fried egg rolls, peking duck bao, soy sauce chow fun with bean sprouts and beef, steamed seabass in soybean sauce, sizzling filet mignon, and a plate of their seasonal Chinese greens. The way the menu reads might lead one to believe that the food is very Americanized, but when the dishes arrived, they were all very traditional preparations.
Though they were on point flavor-wise, the small eats were rather underwhelming. The fried egg rolls arrived drenched in oil on a simple white stoneware plate, an executional faux pas that will no doubt be fixed as the restaurant gets a better handle on operations. The Peking duck bao was tasty, but felt like it was under-filled. It needed more stuffing to make it look good and to balance out the starchiness of the bao.
The main entrees we ordered, on the whole, were excellent, if pricey when compared with Cantonese restaurants in Southwest Houston. The steamed seabass in soybean sauce (pictured at top) was a clear standout, perfectly executed, with wonderful flavor, aroma, and presentation. Steaming hot, plump and moist, the white fish floated on a delicate, fragrant pool broth. A smear of dark, fermented soybeans topped the small filet, imparting this pungent savoriness to each delectable bite. When you order Chinese, it’s typical that you share everything family style, and though that’s what I and my companion did, this is one of those dishes that you could easily order and eat all by yourself.
The sizzling filet mignon strips, on the other hand, were perfect for sharing. Served on an oval cast iron plate, the tender sizzling strips of meat were enrobed in a rich brown, thick peppered gravy, the kind that goes so well with steamed white rice.
A soy sauce chow fun, was also good, but could have been better. The thick glutinous rice noodles were seasoned properly but they lacked that extra element of smoky char that you get from places that sear the noodles in the wok.
Also great to share was the seasonal Chinese greens — a snow pea leaf with garlic. In fact, Li's menu offers plenty of options — denoted by a small red flower — for vegetarians and vegans, among them spicy organic tofu, several sauteed green options, noodles and appetizers.
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When you visit Ginger & Fork, you are not going to a Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown. You are visiting a restaurant with authentic Cantonese cooking inside the Loop, and the ambiance, prices, level service reflect that. The terrific craft cocktails, like Li's spicy, creamy, Mezcal-based "Hot Child in the City," are worth the visit alone. Order it at the bar, with the stellar sea bass, or a plate of noodles, for a fine dining experience.
Ginger & Fork is located at 4705 Inker and debuted to the public on March 15. Current hours are: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Happy Hour Tuesday- Saturday 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays. For more information, visit gingerandforkhouston.com.