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Houston Chinatown 101

So you find yourself over at St. Agnes, Strake Jesuit, or Kiva Kitchen & Bath, and you realize you are overcome with hanger after navigating traffic, wrangling kids, and doing anything else that falls into the “adulting” category. Or, you’re tired of the same line-up of fajitas for the 40th week in a row. Don’t get me wrong. Houston’s Tex Mex scene is not to be rivaled, but there’s a special nook in Houston that offers delicious cuisine as well as a great cultural experience: Chinatown.

Chinatown, also often referred to as Asiatown, has 100s of restaurants that serve comfort food to the large Vietnamese and Chinese populations {over 100k and 70k, respectively} in the Greater Houston area. This region is centered on Bellaire Blvd and spans across Sharpstown and Alief straddling Beltway 8. Families flock here on the weekends to grab a bite to eat because it’s so affordable, and also to do some grocery shopping for ethnic produce and ingredients that are often marked up at the neighborhood grocer. Growing up in Clear Lake, a visit to Bellaire Blvd was a day-trip. We’d have lunch, go grocery shopping, browse the shops for the latest Vietnamese pop music release, and buy croissants and baguettes for the long car ride home and the week ahead.

No, there’s no dog or rat on the menu despite the stereotype. Everything served here is cooked. Yes, all the places I’ve hand-picked for you have English-speaking staff and might even have photo menus. And, it’s totally okay to use a fork and knife. Chopsticks are optional.

Considerations

Before I dive into the specifics, there are some things to keep in mind before you pay a visit to one of my favorite parts of town.

Dietary constraints

While I do love eating out in Chinatown, it has been a challenge now that I have a daughter with extensive food allergies. Along with her peanut allergy {which can be tucked away in some Asian baked goods}, she’s allergic to eggs {so we have to avoid egg noodles}, shellfish {shrimp is often mixed with pork in dumplings}, and dairy. However, we have managed well and are sure to confirm that the food is not prepared with any of her allergens. We’ve had the best luck with pho. Also, if you abstain from eating pork, also be sure to ask for beef or vegetarian options.

Customer service

Culturally, service with a smile is not required, so don’t take it personally if you are not handled with care. It’s not because you look different from the waiter. It’s equal opportunity brevity and terseness.

Driving behavior

If you take blood pressure medication, be sure to take it that morning. Even the best and courteous drivers transform into lunatics in this zone of Bellaire Blvd.

Changing tables

Most Asiatown restaurants do not have changing tables whether you are a man or woman. We often change diapers in the trunk of our SUV.

Houston Chinatown 101 | Houston Moms Blog

Photo credit Carol Liang Wu

Houston Chinatown Basics & Favorites

Family Style

Asian families often eat family style, and everything is eaten with rice. Typically, 3 entrees are ordered, and you only fill your bowl with a little bit of food at a time as you can easily go back for more. {1} It’s seen as wasteful if you take more than you can eat, and {2} the food stays warmer longer if it’s kept together in the main dish.

Houston Chinatown 101 | Houston Moms Blog

Tan Tan’s A1 Special Rice Cake. Photo courtesy of Kim Eng Tran.

Tan Tan

6816 Ranchester Dr., Houston, TX 77036

What used to be the default after party spot for many Coogs, is now a favorite at any time of day especially late dinner. If you want a lighter crowd, go earlier in the day. Start with A1 :: special rice cake {rice cake rectangles in an egg  mix with scallions and onion dipped in a special soy sauce mix}. Also order the won ton noodle soup, beef chow fun dry style, and water spinach {rau muong sau, ong choy}.

House of Bowls

6650 Corporate Dr., Houston, TX 77036

I LOVE House of Bowls. Hong Kong style food full of savory flavor. The menu is super extensive. I still get overwhelmed by it, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Popular items :: deep fried chicken wings with scallions, eggplant with meat sauce {my husband hates eggplant but likes this dish}, beef chow fun dry style, and spaghetti with beef tenderloin and black pepper sauce.

Mala Sichuan

9348 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77036

Pronounced mahh-lahh, this establishment was so successful at their Bellaire location that they opened a second spot in Montrose. Mala itself is a Sichuan cuisine where the spiciness numbs your tongue. It may not be suitable for younger children, but definitely take the older ones once their palettes are ready for some heat. Cash discount available. Favorite dishes :: water boiled fish, silk potatoes {red chili style}, and dan dan noodles {skip if you can’t have pork}.

Dim Sum

Think of dim sum as Cantonese style tapas. They’re small dishes meant for sharing. You’ll be hard pressed to find many {if any} dim sum restaurants outside of Chinatown. Sugar Land has a dim sum restaurant, but most folks living in the Greater Houston area flock here for their dim sum fix. It starts to get crowded as early as 11:30 on Sundays, so be sure to go early. Most dim sum places serve the same thing, but freshness is the differentiator. What usually happens is you hustle for your table, sit down, mark off the items you want to order with the paper chart placed in front of you, the waiter collects your chart, and food from your order trickles out as it’s ready. The places I’ve listed below either have picture menus or some sort of visual available prior to committing. Typical dim sum dishes to order :: har gao {steamed shrimp dumplings}, shumai {steamed pork + shrimp dumplings}, cha siu bao {steamed pork buns. My daughter can eat these! No shellfish, eggs, dairy, but maybe some soy}, rice noodle roll with shrimp or pork, and cai lan {steamed Chinese broccoli}. Be sure to order some chrysanthemum or jasmine tea to help digest the grease.

Kim Son

10603 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77072

The dim sum dining hall is upstairs, and they actually push the carts around here. It allows you to get a visual without knowing the name of anything prior to commitment. The dining room is large, so we default here if the other spots are too crowded. Plus, the buffet {which is actually quite good and gives you a good introduction to all Vietnamese food} is down the hall.

Golden Dim Sum

10600 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77072Houston Chinatown 101 | Houston Moms Blog

This is where my family goes every time we eat dim sum. There are picture menus here, and they love babies at this location.

Dim Sum King

9160 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77036

A picture menu is also available here. It’s one of the oldest dim sum places in Houston, and it’s tucked in the corner of a strip mall next to an HPD storefront.

Crawfish

That’s right. Crawfish. The Vietnamese take a different take on preparing mudbugs. The seasoning is heavy in butter, garlic, and a touch of citrus. In other words… It’s delicious. Long wait times happen at dinner on the weekends. Go earlier in the day to avoid crowds. Order at the counter by the pound.

Crawfish & Noodles

11360 Bellaire Blvd. #990, Houston, TX 77072

This place offers-up great Vietnamese dishes {noodles, obvi…} as well as typical Cajun pairings with crawfish.

Jolynn’s

10834 Beechnut St., Houston, TX 77072

Ok, it’s not on Bellaire Blvd., but it’s close enough. It’s one of the first really popular crawfish places and still gets crowded at night during peak season. It’s BYOB, and there’s a liquor store next door. I prefer the garlic butter flavor over lemon pepper.

Crawfish Cafe

11209 Bellaire Blvd. C36, Houston, TX 77072

They’re a newer kid in town. Their “mix” seasoning has people raving.

Pho

Pho is pronounced fuhh. As in fuhhh-nomenal {phenomenal} and a nickname of “Pho King” will sound very vulgar. Pho is the gateway to Vietnamese cuisine. Rice noodles are served in an individual portioned bowl with a beef broth that’s been simmered for hours, choice of beef {meatballs, medium rare, brisket}, sliced onions, and cilantro. If you want a go at pho without the trip to Asiatown, there are many good pho restaurants all around town. Just type “pho” into your Google maps app, and it will direct you to a location closer to you. However, there are some very popular spots in Asiatown. A good benchmark pho is pho chin bo vien, which is pho with brisket and meatballs. All pho restaurants serve this combo. Pho restaurants also serve egg rolls and spring rolls.

Pho Dien

11830 Bellaire Blvd. Suite C, Houston, TX 77072

A very simple menu makes ordering easy. They often run out of pho, and they only offer pho.

Pho Danh

11209 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77072

It’s in the food court of Hong Kong City mall, so grab a bite to eat before your peruse Hong Kong Supermarket.

Pho Binh by Night

12148 Bellaire Blvd. #101, Houston, TX 77072

They have an excellent chicken pho with soup on the side {pho ha kho}.

Banh Mi

Banh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches, are cheap {usually about $2} and filled with delicious flavor. Pro-tip: smash the baguette with your hands so that you don’t shred the roof of your mouth when you bite down. Most banh mi will be filled with pickled carrots/daikon, cilantro, butter, and a fat killer jalepeno. Popular sandwiches: banh mi thit nuong {chargrilled pork} and banh mi ga nuong {chargrilled chicken}.

Don’s Cafe

9300 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77036

How can you say no to buy 5 get 1 free?

Lee’s Sandwiches

11210 Bellaire Blvd. #113, Houston, TX 77072

Walk in, and the aromas from their in-house bakery will captivate you. Their ca phe sua da {Vietnamese iced coffee} is particularly good. Croissants are also a guilty pleasure.

Simple Taiwanese Food

It’s individually served meals where there’s always a starch {either rice or noodles}, a protein {usually always chicken or pork}, and pickled veggies. It’s a glorious balance of savory and sweet.

Star Snow Ice

9889 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77036

Houston Chinatown 101 | Houston Moms Blog

Star Snow Ice chicken & rice dish. Milk tea also pictured.

They are the original bubble tea place in Houston {see below}. They also serve up a delicious chicken and rice dish where the chicken has been tenderized to the point where it’s the size of your face.

San Dong Noodle House

9938 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036

There’s a picture menu. Point to the beef soup dumplings, and order it. You won’t be disappointed. It’s a thick beef broth with bok choy and dumplings. To the left of the register are shelves stacked with their famous steamed goods to take home. If they’re still there, as they sell out quickly, grab a box of their steamed pork balls covered in sticky rice. No shame in eating the whole thing all at once.

Milk Tea / Boba / Bubble Tea

There are so many names for this sweet beverage. There are also so many competing places, but the good ones manage to thrive because the demand is high enough. You can order a smoothie, slush, or go for the traditional milk tea {usually sweet jasmine tea with creamer} and add the small, round tapioca balls, known as boba or bubbles. Most places these days allow you to ask for less sugar if that is what your heart desires. My personal favorite is creamy green milk tea with boba.

Star Snow Ice

9889 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77036

Kung Fu Tea

9889 Bellaire Blvd. #222, Houston, TX 77036

ShareTea

9889 Bellaire Blvd. E213, Houston, TX 77036

Tea Bar

9889 Bellaire Blvd. E211, Houston, TX 77036

Boba Zone

10611 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77072
{They have a drive-thru!}

Pastries & Desserts

Six Ping Bakery

9889 Bellaire Blvd. D246, Houston, TX 77036 & 9384 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77036

Just try everything. Once you walk in, you can’t say no to the smell of alllll.the.bread.

Le Duc Bakery

11528 Bellaire Blvd. # E, Houston, TX 77072

This is where I got my wedding cake. French style pastries with Asiatown prices. Croissants here are huge and delicious. Try the pate chaud, a Vietnamese savory pastry. It’s flaky croissant-like on the outside with a pork meatball in the middle.

Houston Chinatown 101 | Houston Moms Blog

Nu Café shaved ice in green tea and lychee flavors

Juice Box

9889 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX 77036

Shaved ice. Fruit. Condensed milk. Mic drop.

Nu Cafe

9889 Bellaire Blvd. #1128, Houston, TX 77036

New concept of shaved ice. Also topped with fruit and condensed milk. My favorite combo is green tea ice with strawberries and mochi. The lychee flavored ice with mango and mochi is also good.

Suggested Itineraries

East of BW8

  1. Pick one for a main meal: House of Bowls, Tan Tan, Mala, Dim Sum King, San Dong, or Star Snow Ice.
  2. Stroll through Fit Japanese Store to get lured into buying stuff you don’t need. It’s too tempting because everything is $2 unless otherwise labeled.
  3. Stop by any of the milk tea places {except Boba Zone – it’s on the West side}. They’re all in the same complex as Fit.
  4. Pick-up some baked goods from Six Ping or dessert at Juice Box or Nu Cafe. Or, grab sandwiches to go at Don’s.

West of BW8

  1. Pick one for your main meal: any of the crawfish places, Golden Dim Sum, Kim Son, any of the pho places, or Lee’s sandwiches.
  2. Stop by Le Duc for dessert.
  3. Drive through Boba Zone for a drink for the ride home.

Now, let’s celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month {every May} with a trip out to Bellaire Blvd! Eat super healthy during the week so you can pig-out in Asiatown over the weekend!

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One Response to Houston Chinatown 101

  1. Jenny Middleton May 26, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post!!! My husband and I absolutely love all Asian cuisine, so for you to breakdown Houston’s Chinatown for us is so very helpful!!! Looking forward to trying some of these restaurants out! 🙂 We actually used Le Duc for desserts and cake at our wedding-absolutely delicious! Big thanks Kristine!

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