Restaurant Reviews

Uyghur Bistro Has Great Spicy Food, but Its Servers Work in the Slow Lane

There are three types of diners who will adore Uyghur Bistro: those who enjoy full-flavored, spicy food, especially the tongue-numbing tingle of Szechuan peppercorn; bargain-hunters who treasure Chinatown for incredible dining values; and food nerds who love delving into the cultural origins of cuisines.

Here’s who won’t love Uyghur Bistro: diners who can’t tolerate service issues, like forgotten drinks, missed dishes, occasional inattentiveness and unavailable menu items. Over the course of our visits, we experienced all those issues. Some of them can be chalked up to a language barrier, but not all. On the last review visit, the restaurant was out of everything we initially asked for: qordaq (stewed lamb), ding ding noodles and rib kebab. The tea never showed up, so we just drank water. A dish recommended by our server didn’t show up until we were eventually able to flag someone down and reorder it.

Essentially, once dishes are dropped at the table, diners are left alone. Don’t sit around waiting for the check to come. It won’t.

Undoubtedly, someone who works at Uyghur Bistro really, really loves the German rock band Scorpions. One night, it seemed someone’s iPod playlist had been inadvertently shortened, and it rotated through the same five songs over and over again. Diners were “treated” to “Still Loving You,” both the album version and the live one, five times each in an hour. It was absurd and funny — the first three times. Truly, we’ll never forget that visit.

Despite all the bobbles, Uyghur Bistro is still a fun and fascinating adventure for patient diners, and even if service is flawed, the staff is kind and means well.

Uyghurs are an ethnic minority in China. They are Turkic (not to be confused with “Turkish,” a resident of Turkey) and predominantly Muslim. Their cuisine resulted from the melding of spices and ingredients that passed through the Xinjiang region on the historic Silk Road trading routes. The roads ran primarily east to west, enabling trade between the Chinese, Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Indians and others. Westward and across the Mediterranean Sea, the trade route was extended by ship all the way to Italy, and the north-south routes wound their way down to Africa and Indonesia. All these factors have led to a halal cuisine that is often strongly spiced, pork-free and full of thrills.

Two types of pastas dominate: thin, even, round noodles, and wide, flat noodles with an appealing, rustic, uneven surface and wonderfully chewy texture. These are made in-house and are especially well-suited for grabbing and holding the red, oily sauce in the “Big Plate chicken,” which is heavily laden with fresh and dried Szechuan peppercorns. The chicken comes in rough bone-in hunks — the better to gnaw on. The generosity of portion sizes borders on the ridiculous. A “small” Big Plate chicken is enough for three (two with leftovers, for sure), while a large is plenty for four or five, and there may even still be leftovers. The assumption is that a few other dishes will be ordered alongside — and why not, when the prices are so reasonable?
The enormous Big Plate Chicken is $22.50. The “spicy noodles,” another popular dish swimming in its own pepper sauce — with the thin noodles this time, not the thick ones — is $11.50 and, again, is a heaping helping that feeds two or three people. Adorned with dark green spinach, chunks of red tomato and purplish squares of chopped, sautéed red onion, it’s as lovely as it is hearty. Tea is a dollar. Two kebabs laden with beef and rolled in a dry spice mix with caraway, cumin seed and pepper flakes are $4.80. There’s so much bang for the buck at Uyghur Bistro, it’s easy to forgive the Scorpions on repeat.

It was surprising that the Uyghur polo (the Asian word for “pilaf”) arrived topped with a whole, stewed lamb shank. The photo on the menu showed the rice topped with chopped meat, not meat on the bone. Still, the meat was so deeply flavorful — even with scant seasoning — it was worth the extra effort to pull it from the bone. It turned out to be the rice that carried all the seasoning, as it was pleasingly rife with garlic, toasted cumin seed, slivers of carrot and onion. It was deeply satisfying and, unlike the Big Plate chicken, flavorful but not spicy. Adding more heat is a little too easy, since there’s a small metal container on each table that has a not-fooling-around sauce of crushed hot pepper in oil. Just a dab will do, even for staunch palates.

Those who do not like spicy foods could aim for the polo. Those who go so far as to prefer their food downright bland can steer for the beef noodle soup. People who enjoy even a little salt will find the soup’s most redeeming quality is that it sports more of those wide, uneven and wonderfully chewy noodles. For most, however, a ho-hum broth with slices of beef and garnished with fresh cilantro and chives just isn’t worth ordering.

Obviously, this is a type of Chinese food completely different from what has been previously available to Houstonians. One dish, though — the gong bao chicken — should be very familiar. It’s normally listed on menus as “kung pao” chicken. The Uyghur Bistro version is a very standard rendition, chock-full of blanched peanuts and accented with chunks of green bell pepper, dried red chiles and onion. If there’s one complaint, it’s that the dish seemed a little shy on actual chicken, and it would be nice to see more of that and fewer peanuts, as they take over the dish. This is another selection suitable for introducing the timid to while others in the group are noshing on the good stuff.
Uyghur Bistro does not have alcoholic beverages, nor is BYOB allowed. The reason for this is that Uyghurs are predominantly Islamic and, according to most interpretations, the Quran prohibits the consumption of alcohol. (In fact, there’s been tension over the past two years in Xinjiang because the Chinese government has ordered Muslim shopkeepers to sell alcohol and cigarettes, an action that conflicts with their religious beliefs.) Frankly, Uyghur Bistro’s hot tea is so good that it more than suffices. It would be better if it were served in cups instead of glasses, though, which are initially too hot to hold.

Those easily distracted by art will be entranced by the rich silks, textured tapestries, colorful prints and musical instruments that adorn the walls and connect the space with its heritage. Uyghur Bistro is definitely more “done up” than many humble restaurants on the Bellaire strip.

Obviously, the operations side of the restaurant could be finessed, but patient diners with a sense of humor will find the goofy bobbles good-natured and even kind of adorable. Even though the visits weren’t perfect, the food was intriguing and a great value.

In other words, we’re “still loving you,” Uyghur Bistro.

Uyghur Bistro
9888 Bellaire, #168, 832-795-9259. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Kebabs (two per order) $4.80
Beef noodle soup $7.50
Spicy noodles $11.50
Gong bao chicken $11.50
Uyghur polo $12.99
Big Plate chicken (large) $22.50
Tea $1.00
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook