Food and Drink

Try These Houston Chinatown Restaurants ASAP

Just in time for Lunar New Year.

Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham

A sprawling network of individual businesses and strip malls centered along Bellaire Boulevard between Ranchester and Beltway 8, Houston’s Chinatown may not bear a resemblance to its counterparts in New York City and Los Angeles, but it was affected by COVID-19 just the same. Well before the city went into lockdown in late March, Chinese restaurants were hit hard, with some businesses seeing as much as a 90% decline in sales. A year later, the restaurants that persevered are still regaining their footing, and it’s up to us to do our part. With Chinese New Year upon us, let’s usher in the Year of the Ox with a visit to our favorite Chinatown establishments, starting with these.

Wing Kee

Tucked away in a strip mall on Wilcrest Drive just north of the main Bellaire Boulevard drag, Wing Kee is the quintessential Chinese hole-in-the-wall with chipped plates, a handful of tables, and a small window selling Chinese barbecue at cash-only takeout prices. Serving some the best crispy roast pork and roast duck in town, everything here is generally excellent, from the wonton noodle soup, to the scrambled egg with shrimp, to the brisket chow fun. The $7.59 weekday lunch special, with choices like orange beef, stir fried string beans, and salt and pepper squid, is a veritable steal.
How to order: Open for dine-in. Call 281-741-7118 for takeout, or order chowbus.com for delivery.

Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham

One Dragon Restaurant

A true mom-and-pop shop where the husband is the cook and the wife is the server and front of the house manager, this tiny 10-table restaurant is the place to visit for xiao long bao soup dumplings, sheng jian bao crispy bottom dumplings, and homey Shanghai cuisine. The braised pork belly is incredible, and snack foods like the onion pancake or crispy red bean cake always deliver.
How to order: Call 713-995-6545, or order via chowbus.com for delivery.

Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham

Shanghai Restaurant

During the early stages of COVID-19, this beloved family-run restaurant in Diho Square was hanging by a thread: Revenues had dropped more than 75%, causing the owners to dip into their hard-earned savings just to stay afloat (thankfully, they survived). Now newly renovated after an extended closure, patrons of this 17-year stalwart can return for their famous salted toasted pork spareribs, sweet and sour pork, sizzling black pepper steak, and house special lobster. And bonus, it’s still BYOB with no corkage.
How to order: Open for dine-in. Call 713-988-7288 for pickup, or order delivery via Chowbus, Grubhub or Ubereats.

San Dong Noodle House

One of the few restaurants in Chinatown specializing in Taiwanese food, San Dong Noodle House closed its doors for several months in the summer before reopening with a take-out only configuration. Prices for most dishes still hover in the $8 range-which means two can comfortably eat for about $20. Best bets are the Taiwanese beef noodle soup, pan fried pork and cabbage dumplings, or the fried pork chop plate. Bags of frozen dumplings, as well as boxes of steamed baos, shu mai, fried rice, and more, are also available for easy grab-and-go.
How to order: Takeout only. Call 713-988-8802 for pickup.

Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham

Tan Tan

Faux-palm trees, string lights, and pink neon contribute to the ambiance at this sprawling Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant, where you can get lau (Vietnamese hot pot), chow mein, bo luc lac (Vietnamese shaking beef), Peking duck, and everything in between. Open ’til midnight on weekends, the people watching is top notch and so is the banh bot chien (fried Vietnamese rice cake)-make sure to get an order.
How to order: Open for dine-in. Call (713) 771-1268.

Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham

Golden Dumpling House

Need a dumpling fix? A tried and true staple for plump, house-made dumplings, choose from boiled, steamed, or pan-fried dumplings, then specify the filling (chicken with vegetables, pork and shrimp, pork with cabbage, etc). Most orders ring in around $6 and come with 10 dumplings. Frozen bags of 40 dumplings are also available for purchase. Cash only.
How to order: Takeout only. Call 713-270-9996.

House of Bowls

Fast-casual Hong Kong-style cooking is the specialty at House of Bowls, where the extensive menu covers all the bases in terms of rice, noodles, and shareable family-sized plates. Die hard fans swear by the dry beef chow fun-widely regarded as the best in the city-along with house favorites like the crispy chicken wings and the Hong Kong-style french toast.
How to order: Open for dine-in. Call 713-776-2288 for pickup.

Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham

Mein Restaurant

Was it only 2015 when Mein debuted? Six years in, Mike and Jack Tran’s “Everyday Food” restaurant is as much a Chinatown destination as it is a place for high quality, affordable Chinese food. On the walls, hand painted murals of 1940s-era Chinese actresses add a touch of glam to the ambiance. Feast on bowls of wonton noodle, order an appetizer of juicy char siu, then add a squid ink fried rice, a cold hand-pulled chicken, or a crispy fried noodle plate. The extensive menu is designed so that patrons can dine several times a week without ever ordering the exact same meal.
How to order: Open for dine-in. For takeout call 713-923-7488, or get delivery via Doordash.

Courtesy of Mala Sichuan Bistro
Courtesy of Mala Sichuan Bistro
Courtesy of Mala Sichuan Bistro

Mala Sichuan Bistro

Now with four locations-in Chinatown, Montrose, Katy, and Sugar Land-over the last decade, husband and wife team Heng Chen and Cori Xiong’s highly acclaimed Sichuan restaurant has acquired an army of followers devoted to dishes like water boiled fish, red oil wontons, and spicy crispy chicken. The original Chinatown location-whose former chef Jianyun Ye, was a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2017-is still widely regarded as Houston’s best restaurant for true Sichuan cuisine.
How to order: Open for dine-in, with direct online ordering from all locations via malasichuan.com.

Xiaolongkan

With over 800 locations across China, Houston’s first outpost of this famous Sichuan hot pot chain is everything that we could want and then some. From the moment you step into Xiaolongkan and are greeted in unison by the staff, the experience is otherworldly. Gorgeous, custom-designed interiors featuring intricate woodwork and brocade lanterns make you feel like you’ve stepped into the set of a Chinese movie. Meanwhile, deeply flavored, delicious broths, beautiful plating, and excellent service contribute to an unforgettable meal.
How to order: Open for dine-in, with curbside pickup. Call 832-307-6666 for more info.

Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham

Sinh Sinh

Known for its live seafood tanks filled with lobster, king crab, live shrimp, and more, the vast menu at Sinh Sinh ranges from hot pot to steamed fish, to wonton noodle and fried rice. The Chinese barbecue counter is one of the busiest in the city; roast pig and roast duck routinely sellout on weekends, so come early.
How to Order: Open for dine-in. Call 713-541-2888 for pickup.

Mian

Hailing from California’s San Gabriel Valley, where its original location received a Michelin Bib Gourmand designation, this gourmet Sichuan noodle house is the place to go for spicy, lip-tingling noodles. The most famous dish is the spicy zhajiangmian, which comes with ground pork, a fried egg, and Sichuan peppercorns, but seriously, it’s all good.
How to order: Open for dine-in. Call 281-974-1252 for pickup, or get delivery via chowbus.com

Courtesy of Ocean palace
Courtesy of Ocean palace
Courtesy of Ocean palace

Ocean Palace

Located prominently at the west entrance of the Hong Kong City Mall IV, this large seafood restaurant recently underwent a massive renovation and menu overhaul. Dim sum is now offered daily, with traditional dishes like cheung fun and fried crab claws alongside a slew of specialty dishes like truffle shu mai, ginseng har gow, and truffle pork xiao long bao.
How to order: Open for dine-in. Call 281-988-8898 for pickup, or get delivery via grubhub.

Spicy Hunan

A charming Chinese restaurant hidden in the back section of the Dun Huang Plaza, this Hunan food specialist is the place to go for spicy fish heads and Hunan’s famous smoked meats. Popular dishes include the black bean clams, smoked meat with leek, spicy cauliflower, and the tofu and fish filet.
How to order: Open for dine-in. Call 713-271-6666 for takeout.

Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham
Photo by Mai Pham

Shabu House

Owner Debbie Chen was a weekly regular at Shabu House before she bought it outright. A Taiwanese hot pot concept with individual hot pots for each patron, choose from eight soup bases such as original pork bone or zesty tomato, then mix and match individual entrees like Taiwanese meatballs, RC Ranch Wagyu ribeye, and mushrooms to build-your-own feast. Custom hot pots in flavors like spicy kimchi and spicy beef are also available at a set price.
How to order: Open for dine-in. Call 832-925-8889 for takeout.

Food and Drink

What We Learned About Fish From Spending An Afternoon With Josh Niland

It’s time to stop putting your fish in water, you’re killing the flavour

fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it. 

“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.

The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin. 

“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.” 

Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.

As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture. 

descaling fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland. 

This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.

Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly. 

“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.” 

So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on. 

Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate. 

chef showing fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”

Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get. 

“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”

As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland. 

This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”

We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland. 

“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”

cuts of fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter. 

One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood. 

If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world. 

Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.
icons/states/check

Please enter a valid email address