The drive from West Houston’s Memorial area to Bellaire Boulevard off of Beltway 8 never seems that long. But that one stretch of freeway (or feeder, for those who would rather not pay the toll) gives way to a completely different world, where Starbucks is replaced with Star Snow Ice, a shop that sells tapioca drinks, and chains like California Pizza Kitchen give way to pho restaurants. You see bright neon lights and red Chinese lettering on signs for travel agencies, dental and medical clinics, and banks. The newly erected buildings, which look similar to the strip malls in the Memorial area, are littered with hair salons, video rental stores, and karaoke bars—all run by Asians.
Ethnic neighborhoods are common in most cities, and Houston is no exception. I grew up eating at the Korean restaurants in the vicinity of Gessner and Long Point, shopping at the Korean supermarkets in the area, and using Korean stores for services such as passport photos or to get my car checked up. But I wasn’t exposed to Bellaire’s dining establishments and stores until I started going out to eat with friends from my Korean Southern Baptist church. One particular guy, Sean, lived in Alief near Bellaire Boulevard and introduced me to pho, which is Vietnamese beef noodle soup. I still remember that fateful day when I went into Pho Cong Ly (now under new management and a different name) and had my first bowl of the number one, Pho Tai. I wasn’t adventurous then (and I’m still not adventurous now . . .) and stuck with what I thought would be safe—eye-round steak. Of course, there were other meats (especially under a section of the menu clearly labeled “The Adventurer’s Choice”), some of which included tripe, tendon, flank (both fatty and crunchy), and brisket. I wasn’t very appreciative of the food at the time, but eventually, my friends and I began frequenting Bellaire for a bowl of pho and a tapioca drink.
Bellaire Boulevard offers a strange juxtaposition of two cultures. There are Home Depot signs only a few blocks down from the bright neon lights of dim sum restaurants, and Vietnamese sandwich shops offer Lays, Fritos, Doritos, and Korean shrimp crackers. Being in Bellaire felt foreign to me, a “white-washed” Korean who had had little exposure to any other culture than the one I lived in at home (Korean) and the one I learned about at school (Caucasian). Spending most of my adolescence in Memorial, I didn’t hang out exclusively with other Asians and drive around in a souped-up Honda Civic.
Despite my somewhat outsider perspective of Bellaire, I kept going there, lured by the combination of my newfound freedom with my car and the cheap food. I would go to Lai Lai’s (the $4.95 dishes could feed at least three people), or Tan Tan, which was a late-night eatery that my friends and I would frequent for cheap Chinese. Cops sometimes hung out in front of the building—there were always rumors of shootings—but that didn’t stop us. However, a run-in at Star Snow Ice with an angry guy that resulted in two of my friends getting pelted with icy cold tapioca drinks, did keep me away from that spot for quite some time.
I hadn’t been down to Bellaire more than once or twice in the three years since I had left Texas for college in the Midwest. So on a recent trip to Houston, I decided to journey down there one Saturday. My friends were all out of town at their respective schools, so it was just me, the sunset, and Beltway 8 that particular evening. Nostalgia hits me at funny times—I’ll be listening to a song and remember a high-school crush or smell a certain perfume and think of my first-grade teacher. This time, it was the familiarity of the road―passing by my middle school on Vindon Drive and the Barnes and Noble, where I had spent so much time studying, driving past my friend Andrew’s house on Traviata Drive, and getting on Beltway 8’s feeder to reach Bellaire. Once there, I noticed the tall office buildings, glistening in the fading light, and the occasional chain restaurant on the side of the road.
I eventually hit Bellaire and pulled into the Diho Plaza shopping center to buy some banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich served on a baguette-like roll. I had never bought banh mi by myself, and once in the store, I got very confused. The ladies inside seemed to study me intently while I tried to understand the choices on the menu. I eyed the cold cuts sitting behind the glass case, warily casting a glance at the three women, wishing I could just walk out. Finally I just asked for a sandwich. Without asking what kind of meat I wanted, one of the ladies started to warm the bread. I just stood there silently, reassuring myself: “It only costs $2.” One of the women handed the sandwich to me and said, “For you, two dolla.” So I doled over the money and left the restaurant, peeking into the bag as I left. To my horror, I saw unfamiliar meat; some of it was clear brown, some of it slightly pink. As I proceeded to slowly drive out of the parking lot, I called my Vietnamese friend Dan, describing to him the texture, color, and taste of the meat. But we couldn’t figure it out. I finally gave up while pulling into the parking lot at Star Snow Ice. I decided to ask my mom, who seemed to know a significantly greater amount about non-Korean Asian foods than I did. I walked into Star Snow Ice without any hesitation―the incident that had kept me away from the place was three years in the past. I got my $3 cappuccino with tapioca and happily sipped it on the way out. My favorite thing about eating tapioca is the big straw, which allows the tapioca balls to easily flow into your mouth. I wished I had a friend along, so we could spit them out at cars as we drove away (not that I’d ever do such a thing!).
Then I went to Lai Lai’s. When I walked in, the number of Caucasian people eating there surprised me. The people coming out of Diho Market were all Asian, and the people sitting in Star Snow Ice were Asian, but for some reason, Lai Lai’s had become a place for Caucasian teenagers to hang out and eat. As I looked around the dark, little restaurant, with the friendly owner that runs over to seat you and hand you menus right when you walk in the door, I remembered my days in high school, going to Lai Lai’s with my Caucasian friends. I guess the thing is—no matter what race or ethnic group you belong to—you just can’t pass up going to Bellaire for some good, cheap Chinese or Vietnamese food.