"You're going to do a top 10 Chinatown list, aren't you?" a reader implored last week on Twitter. Of course -- Chinatown is my favorite neighborhood for dining and exploration in the entire city. For every old favorite you visit, you're guaranteed to find at least two new restaurants to fall in love with. You may not be able to get around by foot here -- unlike some other cities' Chinatown districts -- but that's because Houston's Chinatown is one of the largest in the country, covering six square miles.
The problem when covering a neighborhood this vast -- not just geographically vast, but also culturally vast -- is choosing only 10 restaurants out of the hundreds that dot the strip malls up and down Bellaire Boulevard. I could easily do a top 50 list in Chinatown, and I am emphatically not kidding.
Do you select the restaurants that are empirically "the best" (if there even is such a thing)? The ones which are best for newcomers to the area to dip their toes into? A wide spread of cuisines that are representative of the breadth of ethnicities -- not just Chinese -- which have made the area their home?
Because I could do one list for each of those three categories, and more (top 10 pho in Chinatown; top 10 dumplings in Chinatown; top 10 noodles in Chinatown; top 10 dim sum in Chinatown; top 10 Korean or crawfish or bakeries or Sichuan...), I decided to focus instead on simply my 10 favorite places in Chinatown. These are the restaurants I visit most often, the ones I implore others to try and the ones I dream about when it's been too long between visits.
Sandong Noodle House, for its pan-fried dumplings. Yummy Kitchen, for its gua bao and stinky tofu. Crawfish & Beignets, for its Vietnamese-style crawfish. B10, for its crusty banh mi. Wild Cajun Crawfish for its buttery crawfish and chargrilled oysters. Dim Sum King, for its all-day dim sum. Six Ping Bakery, for its baby cakes and sweet treats.
10. Cafe Kubo's
One of the hippest and yet most casual places to spend an evening in Chinatown is at Cafe Kubo's, the younger and far more mod sister of the staid Kubo's in Rice Village. Instead of focusing on sushi, however, Cafe Kubo's offers a much more traditional Japanese fast-food menu of dishes like curried pork cutlets over rice, bento boxes of fried chicken and bowls of tonkatsu ramen that complement its easygoing vibe. Happy hour runs every day of the week here, and the food and drink specials make it a huge draw in the evenings.
9. Seoul House
Seoul House is the laid-back little brother of the huge cook-your-own-food Korean restaurants that populate Spring Branch and parts of Chinatown. The bulgogi and bibimbap are as good as I've had anywhere, and the stir-fried veggies with clear noodles and seafood pancake are excellent. Serve yourself from the banchan cart that flanks one wall, and be sure to get at least one bowl of haemul dolsot -- the rice crisps up perfectly in Seoul House's stone bowls every time.
It used to be that the Chinatown go-to for late-night dining was Tan Tan. And while it's still a strong contender for the list, you can get far better food at Pho Binh by Night until 3 a.m on Fridays and Saturdays. (It's open until midnight the rest of the week.) Pho Binh is an offshoot of the immensely popular Pho Binh trailer in south Houston -- owned by the very same family, so you know the pho is still every bit as amazing -- and offers a specialty rarely seen elsewhere: bone marrow, which you can add to your pho like so much meat butter.
This is where the Asian community goes for "Vietnamese fajitas," beef seven ways and crispy, whole-fried catfish. At Saigon Pagolac, you cook your own tenderloin slices on a miniature black cast-iron skillet heated by a butane-fired tabletop cooker. The steak is served with chopped vegetables and exotic herbs that exude flavors of mint, licorice, cinnamon and pepper. And if you're a pescatarian, you'll want to order an entire one of Saigon Pagolac's crunchy-skinned, nearly caramelized catfish for yourself.
6. Pho Ga Dakao
Pho Ga Dakao is on the sleepier end of Chinatown, but that doesn't stop this pho ga (chicken soup) joint from being packed every day of the week. It's open late on the weekends and even for breakfast -- any time is a good time for the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup, after all. Stick with the pho ga here; 11 different combinations are available, but the "Dakao chicken rice noodle soup special" with everything (including hearts, gizzards, livers and tripe) is the most flavorful and one of the most popular orders. Slurping up the chicken-based soup, you'll see the base for the matzah ball pho that Eatsie Boys Cafe is currently serving to great acclaim.
5. Fu Fu Cafe
Robb Walsh said it best back in 2007, when the Houston Press gave Fu Fu Cafe the Best of Houston® award for Best Dumplings:
Fu Fu's awesome soup dumplings appear on the menu disguised as "A26 Steam Pork Bun (4) $2.50." The only way to appreciate the true genius of the soup dumpling is to burst the whole thing in your mouth. That way, the soup combines with the soft dough and the loose meatball to form a wonderfully slurpy bite of soup, meat and dough. By all means try them, but remember they come to the table extremely hot. Wait until they cool! Fu Fu's Beijing-style pan-fried pork dumplings are long rectangles with open ends that look like miniature hot dogs. Fresh out of the pan, when the thick dough is crispy on the bottom and noodle-soft on the top, these are sensational. But if you are looking for something else in a dough wrapper, Fu Fu Café has ten other varieties to choose from, including chicken dumplings, pan-fried pork buns and mushroom dumplings.
Fu Fu is also another late-night dining favorite; it's open until 4 a.m. on the weekends and 2 a.m. the rest of the week.
4. Sushi Miyagi
Don't be fooled by appearances: Sushi Miyagi, though nondescript from the outside, hosts an amazing, authentically Japanese restaurant inside. Miyagi, the sushi chef and owner, has honed his craft over 30 years and serves up both traditional Japanese dishes like stellar agedashi tofu as well as more American treats like giant hand rolls. The sashimi here is similarly wonderful, with fresh fish flown in twice a week. And lunch specials -- which extend even to Saturday -- are a great time to get your Japanese fix without blowing the bank. Just don't expect a quick meal; Miyagi and his elderly wife are the only employees here, so be prepared take your time.
3. Banana Leaf
Regardless of which location you choose -- the first, smaller one where there's always an hour wait or the new location...where there's still usually a wait -- Banana Leaf is the perfect place to experience Malaysian food for the first time. The friendly service and exciting dishes, such as the sweetly spicy sambal shrimp, chow fun, soft-shell crab and the hand-tossed roti canai, make the restaurant a destination despite its casual atmosphere and low prices. Take advantage of its generous BYOB policy and bring a bottle of Riesling to supplement the savory pan-Asian cuisine.
House of Bowls offers perhaps Houston's most authentic Hong Kong-style food experience in a festive, colorful atmosphere. Bring a group and prepare to eat a lot of food (without spending a lot of money). Can't-miss dishes include the pitch-perfect beef chow fun dry-style with fresh noodles and the curried shrimp fried rice. But for something different, indulge in a plate of crunchy, deep-fried chicken wings or House of Bowl's crowning glory: Hong Kong-style French toast stuffed with peanut butter and topped with sweetened condensed milk.
1. Mala Sichuan
Mala Sichuan represents a new direction for Chinatown, as one of the new "second generation" restaurants that focuses on serving authentic food (Sichuanese cuisine in this case) but with more Western elements like snappy service and an easy-to-decipher menu. Owner Cori Xiong's all-Sichuan team of chefs also ensures that nearly every dish to come out of the kitchen is a winner, from the ginger sauce-braised, softball-size pork meatballs and tea-smoked duck to more exotic foods like the red chile oil-laced Couple's Lung Dish (made mostly with beef tendons, not lungs) or ma po tofu and the ultra-spicy live tilapia dishes that are the restaurant's most popular with Chinese patrons.
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Check out our other Top 10 neighborhood lists:
Top 10 in Montrose Top 10 in the Heights Top 10 in Rice Village Top 10 on Washington Avenue Top 10 in the East End Top 10 in the Galleria Top 10 in Midtown Top 10 in Memorial Top 10 in Upper Kirby Top 10 in Greenway Plaza Top 10 in The Woodlands Top 10 in Spring Branch Top 10 in Little India Top 10 in Far Northwest Houston