Pudgy Pork Dumplings and Crisp Soft-Shell Crab at Cafe Chino

Because of Cafe Chino, I'm going to have to stop saying that it's hard to find good Chinese food inside the Loop. I probably passed this restaurant at least a hundred times en route to visiting its strip-mall neighbors, Party City and Rustika Cafe, and ignored it. With its pale Pepto-Bismol facade and aging terra cotta roof, Cafe Chino isn't going to win an award for Most Attractive Restaurant anytime soon. But while its exterior is bland, its food is not. Isn't it wonderful that looks can be deceiving?

The restaurant was fairly quiet early on a weekday night when my companions and I stopped in for a belated birthday dinner. Ironically, such a setting can often mean slow service since waitstaff, in my experience, sometimes are less inclined to "hop to it" when the dining room isn't busy. I am very happy to say this was not the case at Cafe Chino as our waiter took our drink orders almost immediately and returned just as promptly with my frosty cosmopolitan.

I wasn't feeling particularly adventurous when it came time to select some appetizers, and went along readily with a half and half (fried and steamed) order of pork dumplings. Thank goodness for my indifference. I unwittingly stumbled into the best pork dumplings I have had in Houston. Period.

Cafe Chino's pork dumplings have a relatively thin dough casing and therefore lack the gummy, overly starchy texture of other, lesser dumplings. Not to suggest, however, that the dough provides a flimsy container for the thick spiced pork meat, for the dumplings maintained their structural integrity and were able to withstand a sharp, savory sear from the frying pan.

A small (well, not too small), neurotic part of me always worries that entrée disappointment will follow appetizer success. It was too late, however, to ask the waiter to just bring me a triple serving of dumplings for dinner, so I would have to settle for my original order, the tomato chili soft-shell crab. Well, the only thing I had to "settle" for in terms of the crab was a modest portion. The crustaceans were deep-fried but with only the lightest coating of batter, which precluded excessive greasiness and allowed the sweet pepper flavor of the sauce and the bittersweet onions to really shine. High adhesive, the tomato chili sauce also clung pleasantly to the grains of white rice I eventually mixed with the crab in an effort to extend the life of the dish. Yes, as with a good season finale, I just didn't want it to end.

But as one of my dining companions pointed out, it doesn't really have to. Cafe Chino is affordable as well as close enough to my house for reruns.

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