Mention Chinatown to Texans, and many will think first of New York or San Francisco, where traditional Chinese street signs, bumpy durian fruits and bamboo baskets filled with dumplings have inspired countless Instagrams. While the Chinatowns in those cities have long been tourist destinations, a similar corridor in Houston receives less recognition, even from local residents, a surprising fact considering that Houston’s New Chinatown is large—almost six square miles—and centered around a busy stretch of Bellaire Boulevard. “Many people have lived in Houston all of their lives and have never been here,” said Christy Chang, who gives weekly tours of the neighborhood with her company, Asian Heritage Discovery (asianheritagediscovery.com).
The parking lots and pedestrian malls that dominate the area may be aesthetically boring, but the community is culturally rich, thanks to a population made up of Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans, and other Asians who collectively speak dozens of languages and dialects. (As Chang told the Houston Chronicle a few years ago, “This area is not just Chinatown anymore. If anything, it’s Asia Town.”)
Many of Houston’s top chefs have long visited Bellaire for culinary inspiration. Since Chinatown’s food scene can be intimidating to newcomers—strip mall storefronts blend together and many restaurants distribute “western-style” menus to anyone who doesn’t look Asian—we asked a handful of these food professionals to tell us where they go and what they order.
Chris Shepherd: HK Dim Sum and Lucky Pot
Shepherd considers the owners of HK Dim Sum (9889 Bellaire Boulevard, Suite 110, hkdimsumcity.com) family, a sentiment that was clearly reciprocated on a recent visit as he was ushered past the Saturday afternoon crowds to a corner table. His new restaurant, Underbelly (1100 Westheimer Road, underbellyhouston.com), is a tribute to Houston food, and he calls this tiny, packed spot one of his Chinese inspirations. Plates arrived within minutes, and soon the table was loaded with steamed shrimp dumplings, crispy shrimp rolls best dipped in mayonnaise, and, for dessert, soft egg custards with condensed milk.
Across the street, Lucky Pot (9888 Bellaire Boulevard, Suite 158) is another one of Shepherd’s go-to restaurants. “It’s not lucky, and they don’t serve anything in a pot, but you can’t beat the Peking duck,” he said. True to Beijing tradition, the bird is carved within view of the table and served on a lazy Susan with sides of plum sauce, ribbons of scallions and delicate crepes.
Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera: Crawfish & Noodles
The duo behind Revival Market (550 Heights Boulevard, revivalmarket.com), a local-food grocery and butchery, consider Crawfish and Noodles (11360 Bellaire Boulevard, Suite 990) a mandatory pit stop. It’s probably one of the best known restaurants in the area, largely thanks to Houstonians’ insatiable appetite for crawfish.
The restaurant also tells a story of cross-cultural history: When Vietnamese immigrants landed in the American South in the 1970s and ’80s, they found common ground with Gulf Shore residents in Cajun cooking—which shares French influences with their own cuisine—and Viet-Cajun food was born. Instead of being boiled, these mudbugs are stir-fried with peppery spices, though they’re still ordered one messy market-priced pound at a time.
Justin Yu: Pho Binh
Stop in the Vietnamese noodle house Pho Binh (12148 Bellaire Boulevard, phobinh.com) on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll likely be in the company of some of Houston’s best chefs, hunched over hot bowls of beef noodle broth topped with bean sprouts, sweet basil and cilantro. One regular is Justin Yu of Oxheart (1302 Nance Street, oxhearthouston.com), which is already earning national praise for artful tasting menus that often include Gulf bycatch fish like big-eyed shad and silver croaker. Yu’s pho of choice? “The pho nam gau gan, a heaping bowl of crispy fatty brisket, well-done flank beef and tendon flavored with sawtooth herb, thai basil and bean sprouts,” he said. “And don’t forget the side of bone marrow in broth.”
David Grossman: Mala Sichuan Bistro
If you’re wondering just how fresh the pot-roasted whole tilapia is at Mala Sichuan Bistro (9348 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-995-1889), take note of the fish tank. There, the “before” version of what’s lying on your platter, hidden under a mound of Sichuan peppers, swims happily. Heat-loving chef David Grossman also recommends delicate red-oil wontons, handmade dumplings filled with hot pork and topped with red chili oil, ground garlic, and sweet and spicy soy paste. “It reminds me of the Sichuan restaurants in New York,” said Grossman, who lived in Queens before moving to Houston and opening Branch Water Tavern (510 Shepherd Drive, branchwatertavern.com). “It may be even better.”
Manabu Horiuchi: Fu Fu Cafe
From a service perspective, Fu Fu Café (9889 Bellaire Boulevard, Suite 105) doesn’t thrill. A long wait outside will likely be met with an even longer wait at the table. Still, Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi, a James Beard Award semifinalist and chef at Kata Robata (3600 Kirby Drive, 713-526-8858, katarobata.com), frequents the small strip mall hideout for its Shanghai-style soup dumplings, called steamed pork buns in-house, which he eats “straight, with a spoon.” All will be forgiven when the metal basket of these dough sacs filled with tender pork and an addictive aromatic broth are delivered— no matter that you ordered twelve, and only eight arrived.