Ai Hoa, out on Wilcrest near Bellaire, is an enormous Chinese restaurant. Judging by the black lights in a high part of the ceiling and the elevated stage area underneath them, I'd guess it used to be a nightclub. The place is now decorated with lots of dragons and divided into a couple of big dining rooms. Don't make the mistake of going there for lunch or dinner, when they serve a sorry buffet with too many crinkle-cut french fries, battered onion rings, chicken fingers and other frozen dreck. But on Saturday and Sunday, this is the best spot in the city for dim sum. At least for the time being.
The former title holder, Shanghai Restaurant, has been suffering through a long bout of soggy dumplings and diminishing business. The demise of its influential neighbor, the once-famous Imperial Chinese Restaurant, has contributed to a general loss of buzz at the Diho Square Shopping Center in the 9100 block of Bellaire. A steamy competition has been in progress for some months now among possible successors to the dim sum throne. Until recently, Treasure Island Chinese Restaurant in the 9600 block of Bellaire appeared to have the edge. While the food reportedly was excellent, patrons complained that the restaurant was too small and that you had to get on the waiting list by 11 a.m. on Sunday to have a prayer of getting a table.
Ai Hoa was brought to my attention in an e-mail from Dr. Larry Katz, a Medical Center psychologist. Katz and a friend of his, Dr. David Chiu, a neurologist, are dim sum addicts. Katz picked up his habit while living in San Francisco. Chiu, a Taiwanese-American, experienced cravings shortly after birth. Following a carefully conducted scientific sampling of dim sum emporiums in Houston, the two selected Ai Hoa the hands-down winner. "It's better than Treasure Island and bigger too, so you don't have to wait. But you should still get there before 11:30 for the best selection," Katz advised me over the phone.
The steaming xiu mai is finally cool enough to chew, and I'm ready to get back into the fray. It's one of the biggest xiu mai I've ever eaten, and it has a light, fluffy texture. There are some pork ribs cooked in five-spice powder and wrapped in a paper pouch that the waitress is snipping open, and some seaweed-covered shrimp rolls that I must try. I have assembled my own panel of dim sum experts, who are eating up all the good stuff. Dining companion Jay Francis is gesturing wildly at a waitress, trying to get more tea.
"When you want more tea, just leave the lid on the pot open," the waitress advises. That's a useful tip. When the tea is poured, several people knock on the table. The waitress smiles and bows. Rapping your knuckles is a way to say thank you in Chinese. Robin Luo of the China View restaurant passed along the background story. Once there was a Chinese emperor who liked to disguise himself in the clothing of a commoner and go out into the kingdom. His guards came along, but they kept giving him away by bowing all the time. So he told them that when they had the urge to kowtow, they should just knock instead. And hence rapping your knuckles became a substitute for bowing when seated at a table. It's also very handy when your mouth is full of xiu mai.
The five-spice ribs are tender, a little sweet and very aromatic, with that distinctive blend of cinnamon, clove, fennel, anise and pepper. The rice noodle rolls are fresh and slippery, the dumplings are very hot but not soggy, and there is a staggering selection of dishes so far. In fact, the roving carts of goodies are almost too efficient. Within minutes of our being seated, three carts had already loaded us up with little covered dishes. "Pace yourself," I suggest, as another cart swoops down loaded with fried taro puffs. But my friends are already pointing enthusiastically. "Well, maybe just a couple of orders," I mumble to no effect.
The puffs are covered with a golden crunchy crust, and the pork and taro form an exotic sort of pudding inside. "My friends the Gleasons rate dim sum restaurants by how many times the chicken feet cart comes by," Francis says. "If they keep pushing chicken feet, it means the kitchen isn't keeping up the pace." So far we haven't seen any chicken feet at all. But we do get an order of lotus leaf wraps that are stuffed with sticky rice, Chinese sausage, ginger, mushrooms and oyster sauce.
Not only is there a steady stream of carts bombarding the table with delectables, but there is also a buffet table where more dishes can be found. I pick up some clams in spicy black bean sauce and steamed Chinese broccoli there, but skip the selection of creamy rice and tapioca soups. Ai Hoa clearly has impressed our panel of dim sum judges. They are all willing to agree with Drs. Katz and Chiu that Ai Hoa is leading the pack.
My daughters Katie and Julia want to order some of the fluffy yellow cake for dessert. I tell them to go ahead, but I still have a few more things to try -- like the cock's comb dumplings. They are a very delicate style of rice dumplings stuffed with pork and chopped peanuts. From a cookbook called Dim Sum by Vicki Liley (Periplus Editions, 1999)I learned that a dumpling sealed with a ridge on top is called a "cock's comb." The shape that is sealed with four wings is called a "swallow"; the one with a round bottom and twisted top is called a "money bag." Open-topped shapes with wavy sides are called "flower dumplings" or "cook-and-sell dumplings." The pressed half-moon shape is called gow gee, and wrinkled free-form types are called "Shanghai dumplings." Dim sum means "to touch the heart," or "a little bit of heart." The other name for this morning meal is yum cha, which means "to drink tea."
According to Maeve O'Meara, an Australian food writer who wrote the cookbook's foreword, the dim sum tradition began in the Guangzhou (Canton) region of China when teahouses began offering small snacks to attract customers. This Chinese happy-hour buffet evolved into a culinary art form with elaborately stylized creations. Restaurants in Hong Kong offer as many as a couple hundred different dishes with hot tea at breakfast and lunchtime.
Just before Hong Kong came under the rule of the mainland, many families and businesses moved to other parts of the world. Vancouver, Sydney, San Francisco and Houston are a few of the cities that the emigrants favored. According to O'Meara, the new Cantonese communities have dethroned Hong Kong as the center of this cuisine. Exciting new dishes like salmon dumplings and shrimp toasts have emerged as the new dim sum axis moves to the West.
Meanwhile, Houston's dim sum center is also moving to the west. Eddie Tse, the Hong Kong-born owner of China Border restaurant in Meyerland, says that the Wilcrest-Bellaire area is fast becoming our new dumpling mecca. "Have you been to Ocean Palace?" he asks. I have indeed visited the enormous, gleaming Chinese restaurant in the Hong Kong City Market, west of Beltway 8. But it was so crowded on an early Sunday afternoon that I couldn't get a table. And looking over the place, there seemed to be way too few carts for the number of tables. But it wouldn't be hard to imagine Ocean Palace becoming a contender for the dim sum crown, especially since the restaurant serves it seven days a week. There are more dim sum places in the neighborhood as well. But for now, I'll take Ai Hoa.
Our table of big eaters has finally given up when the waitress comes to our table with a special treat. "This cart will only come once," she warns us. "We only make a few of these, so you better get some now." On the cart are plates of exquisite almond-shaped dumplings wrapped in a lacy white skin made of tapioca that has been cooled into a sheet. The sticky little dumplings are stuffed with rich yellow custard and sweetened red beans. As you chew it, the gooey egg custard melts around the creamy bursts of red beans, and the chewy tapioca sticks it all together before the whole thing melts in your mouth. The conversation at our table has given way to a lot of appreciative grunting, and my daughters are ready to follow the tapioca dumpling trolley wherever it may lead them.
My mouth is full again, so I rap my knuckles on the table.