Local Spotlight

Houston's Best Late Night Dining: Fu Fu Cafe is Chinatown's Midnight Special

Spicy chicken is a reliable order at Fu Fu Cafe, just beware the red things.
Spicy chicken is a reliable order at Fu Fu Cafe, just beware the red things. Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
It's midnight at a giant shopping complex on Bellaire and a dozen guys are tinkering with their crotchrockets. Motorbikes, that is, parked as this style of motorbike usually is, obstructing a perfectly good walkway. The neon lights shine down on dozens of cars, a few that are just a single Rent Me sign away from appearing in the next Fast and Furious, because this place is still hopping even late on a weeknight. There's plenty still open: a karaoke bar, a ramen spot, several bars, a rolled ice cream shop, and the restaurant we have come to descend upon, to worship at the altar of the soup dumpling gods. A spot promised as Chinatown's finest. A spot called Fu Fu.

Except there is a problem. There is both a Fu Fu Cafe and a Fu Fu Restaurant, and the cohort and I have never been to either one and don't know which is better.  Apparently, the one that you want is Fu Fu Cafe.  That's the original, a friend informs me after I text her out of confusion. Thankfully, she's still awake and even game for a midnight snack.

"Are you there now?" she texts. "I'm ten minutes away."
click to enlarge Study time. - PHOTO BY GWENDOLYN KNAPP
Study time.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Ten minutes later we're parked at a table in Fu Fu Cafe, the type of bare bones, obscenely-lit eatery that draws in diners in the night like sea creatures attracted to a phosphorescent-lit reef.  Except here its just fluorescent lighting and sweat pants. Lots of sweat pants. The menu is a picture book of Seussian proportions, the story of Chinese soul— from jellyfish and blood sausage to noodle soups and hot pots. There are pictures of many dishes, but not every single dish. There is not one description. There is only the faint feeling of hope and mystery.  The desire for every menu to be this way, for every dining experience to be based off a single smile-and-point-to-what-looks-good situation.

There is no music here. There are a couple of muted televisions, one airing a Chinese show that appears to be about deer hunting; the other, the classic Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like It Hot. There is, however, a drink cooler that sounds like it contains an actual rave, a buzzing, droning, ambient wall of noise emanating from somewhere beyond the Tsing Taos and cans of Coke every few seconds.

This place is brilliant. The food even more so.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

It comes out fast. The spicy lamb, which our server recommended,  arrives with an aura of cumin, enough so that its almost reminiscent of Taco Bell — a bonus for any relatively inebriated human being, mind you— but of course the underlying heat adds a complex, compelling element and there's a hint of sweetness from the dish's additional onion and scallion. We devoured it in moments flat.

click to enlarge Soup dumplings judge not your poor late night photography skills. - PHOTO BY GWENDOLYN KNAPP
Soup dumplings judge not your poor late night photography skills.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
The restaurant is known for its pork soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, and they most certainly live up to the hype. The plump delicacy is comprised of wrappers thicker than most in town, or so I've been told, and contains so much of the hot and juicy, ginger-fronted broth that small serving bowls are also presented with the dish. Whether you can fit the entire thing neatly in your trap, or have to make a complete ass of yourself by haphazardly biting into it and simultaneously slurping up the broth, well, that's up to you and your genetic similitude to the big mouth bass.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Next comes the salted pork ribs, which are hilariously small— just what part of the pig are we eating here? Don't ask, don't tell— but it's utterly tasty,  with a few dollops of sliced jalapeno and onion and a soy-based sauce that's salty but let's the flavor of the meat do the talking while the table falls silent, engulfed in the feast at hand.

By the time the spicy chicken arrives, tender and resplendent with its spicy peppers and jalapenos and a kick of sauce that turns the mouth into its own little convection oven, and an order of the deep fried and rather naan-like scallion pancake has been steered your red right hand (the left works the Tsing Tao, obviously)  through the meaty wreckage still left on your plate, there is a single revelation: This is an incredible feast for a weeknight approaching 1 a.m. It's an incredible feast for any day at any time.

On the screen, a be-wigged Jack Lemmon moons over Marilyn, and all around the restaurant, tables are still full of friends lurking over hot pots and sizzling fajita-like servings of meat and vegetables, all of them having a blast, all of them looking so comfortable in their leisure wear. Next time, you'll remember to wear the sweat pants.

Fu Fu Cafe,  9889 Bellaire, Suite 105, 713-981-8818
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

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Gwendolyn Knapp is the food editor at the Houston Press. A sixth-generation Floridian, she is still torn as to whether she likes smoked fish dip or queso better.