My first soup dumpling was a disappointment. You get four to an order at Fu Fu Cafe on Bellaire, and they come to the table extremely hot. I was so impatient, I picked one up and nibbled into the dough. Predictably enough, all the soup ran out.
Soup dumplings are fairly large dumplings in the round, squat-bottomed shape Chinese dumpling-makers call a “beggar's purse.” (Think of an oversize Hershey's kiss.) The dough sack is stuffed with a pork meatball and some soup congealed into an aspic. When the dumpling is steamed, the aspic melts into hot soup. How to eat a dumpling with a piping hot liquid center is the soup dumpling-eater's dilemma.
The lady at the next table said she cut hers open in a bowl and allowed it to cool. I nodded my head to be polite, but I didn't take her advice. If you cut it open, you end up with some soup with a dumpling in it. Big deal. You could get a bowl of wonton soup if you wanted that. It seemed to me that the only way to appreciate the true genius of the soup dumpling was to burst the whole thing in your mouth.
Fu Fu Cafe
9889 Bellaire Blvd., 713-981-8818.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Soup dumplings: $2.50
Pan-fried dumplings: $3.95
Green beans with pork: $6.95
Hot spicy chicken: $6.95
Beef and broccoli with flat rice noodle: $7.95
So I waited until the second one was cool enough. And then I shoved the whole thing between my widespread jaws and gingerly chewed it up. This time the soup combined with the soft dough and the loose meatball to form a wonderfully slurpy bite of soup, meat and dough. Finally, I had experienced a soup dumpling properly.
Soup dumplings were the rage in New York about ten years ago. Over the years, several readers have requested advice on where to get them in Houston, and I have been dutifully scouring Chinatown menus looking for them. The menu at Fu Fu Cafe, Chinatown's hottest new dumpling venue, didn't seem to have them either. But the reason I at first didn't see them on the menu is because “soup dumplings” isn't what Fu Fu calls them.
A sympathetic waitress who spoke enough English to understand my plight helped me out. But when she pointed to item A26, “Steam Pork Bun (4) $2.50,” I thought she had misunderstood me. I imagined all steamed pork buns resembled those Chinese barbecue buns you get off the dim sum carts. I was quite wrong.
The “steam pork buns” at Fu Fu Cafe are a version of soup dumplings made with a thick dough. Joe's Shanghai in Elmhurst, Queens, the restaurant that popularized soup dumplings in New York, makes them in a thinner, more fragile dumpling dough. Dainty New Yorkers sip and nibble at them while holding them in Chinese soup spoons. The ones at Fu Fu Cafe are quite sturdy and easy to pick up and pop in your mouth.
My teenage daughter picked up one of the dumplings and emulated my bulging cheek technique. But unfortunately, the dumpling she selected hadn't cooled sufficiently. A look of terror crossed her face. She gamely weathered the pain, rotating her head from side to side while the soup cooled off. But learn from her misfortune be sure your soup dumpling is cool before you burst it in your mouth!
Having scored on the soup dumplings, I asked the helpful waitress if the Fu Fu Cafe had another of the dishes that customers frequently ask me about dan dan noodles. These are chunky noodles with a peanut and pepper sauce that have become very popular around the country. The waitress pointed to A17, “Spicy Szechwan Noodle $3.95.”
These noodles didn't come with any peanut sauce. Instead, they had a glob of evil-looking chile paste on top. After tossing them thoroughly, I had a few bites. The chunky homemade noodles themselves were outstanding. The flavor of the sauce was hot, with weird flashes of licorice and mint. Then I felt my tongue get numb. It turned out the noodles were seasoned with my favorite psychotropic spice Szechwan peppercorns! [See “Bird with a Buzz,” by Robb Walsh, July 13, 2006.] The spicy Szechwan noodles weren't dan dan noodles, but they are pretty wild.
The waitress also recommended the crispy wedges of pastry filled with scallions called green onion pancakes. These made a great side for cleaning up sauces. We also tried pork with preserved cabbage dumplings, which my daughter described as pork and sauerkraut dumplings. They were tasty and, at 16 for $4, extremely cheap.
Along with the four appetizers, we ordered one entrée, the hot and spicy chicken. The exceedingly simple dish consisted of thin slices of white-meat chicken tinted orange with pepper sauce and tossed with green jalapeños, dried red chiles and more seasonings. We couldn't finish the generous portion because of all the dumplings we'd eaten.
“This is the best place for dumplings in Houston,” an Asian man at the next table told me.
“What about Santong Snacks?” I asked, referring to the noodle shop that used to be my favorite. When I first ate at Santong, it was a hole in the wall in the Diho Plaza shopping center on Bellaire. It has since moved to a clean, well-lit location next to Jasmine Restaurant.
“Since they moved, they aren't any good anymore,” the guy said. “The broth for the noodle soup is thin, and the dumplings aren't right. Fu Fu is like Santong was before they moved.”
The first thing on the menu at Fu Fu Cafe is the “A1 Spicy Beef Noodle Soup $3.95.” The combination of deep-brown beef broth, thick, chewy homemade noodles and spicy seasonings is a dream lunch. But the beef that comes in the soup presents a problem.
The big chunks of beef have been cooked for hours and hours, so they fall apart easily. But it has some softened gristle and fat in it. Some folks eat it fat, gristle and all. Others squish the meat up on a separate plate, remove the offending gristle and return the cleaned meat to the bowl. You can also get the same awesome noodles in a pork-and-mustard green soup, a seafood soup or a double mushroom soup.
Fu Fu's signature “pan-fried pork dumplings” are long rectangles with open ends that look like miniature hot dogs. Fresh out of the pan, the thick dough is crispy on the bottom and noodle-soft on the top. The meat is a loose pork mixture that isn't especially spicy.
These big, meaty dumplings are gaining in popularity in Houston thanks to the rise of Beijing-style restaurants like Fu Fu Cafe and Xiong Cafe at 9888 Bellaire Blvd. The Beijing-style dumplings are sensational, but Fu Fu has ten other varieties of dumplings and pork buns to choose from if you're looking for something else. I can't wait to try the chicken dumplings, the pan-fried pork buns and the mushroom dumplings.
In four visits, I have also sampled the al dente green beans tossed with pork and garlic sauce, which were terrific, and the Kung Pao chicken, which was nearly identical to the spicy Szechwan chicken, with the addition of peanuts and Szechwan peppercorns.
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Boring items include the salt-toasted squid, which is too chewy. And too bad they pour bland, gloppy beef and broccoli in brown sauce over the top of the fabulous pancake-like “crispy flat rice noodle.” The flat rice noodle is actually a whole lot of thin rice noodles cooked together into a disc. With a tastier sauce, this dish would be fabulous. But these are minor complaints.
I keep inventing reasons to go back to Fu Fu Cafe to try one more thing. And I still haven't eaten any of the funky clear noodles or the savory rice cereal called congee. I want to try the congee with lobster. The truth is, I won't be happy until I sample all 120 items on the menu.
If you are an adventurous eater looking for some new Chinese dishes to try, go eat lunch at the Fu Fu Cafe immediately. If you have to bring along somebody who only eats mainstream Chinese food, don't worry. There are plenty of safe bets like the dumplings, the green beans and even sweet-and-sour chicken on the menu.
But be forewarned: Fu Fu Cafe is a restaurant that caters to Asians. The $4.95 lunch specials might include deep-fried pork intestines, periwinkles and preserved eggs. And, no, the specials don't come with egg rolls or hot-and-sour soup.