The first three subjects in our series, Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami were all cities without historic Chinese communities or a downtown Chinatown. Technically, Houston does not fit either part of this definition since Houston once had a historic Chinese community as one of the stops on the Southern Pacific railroad, and it still has a downtown Chinatown of sorts. Furthermore, it now has a suburban area widely referred to as Chinatown. However, Houston fits more into the Atlanta/Dallas/Miami model as compared to cities with historic Chinese communities and core center Chinatowns like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. For one, Houston’s Chinese community lacks historic continuity as the original Chinese community disappeared, to be replaced by a newer one starting in the 1940s. In this regard, Houston may be unique among Chinese American communities as its current Chinese community developed while the laws prohibiting the immigration of Chinese to the United States were still in effect. Many of these Chinese relocated to Houston from the Mississippi Delta area, though my own family moved from Los Angeles to Houston in the mid-1930s.
Secondly, the downtown Chinatown, located adjacent to what is now Houston’s Convention Center is by no means a traditional Chinatown. The mid-20th century Chinese community in Houston wasn’t big enough to support a Chinatown, but it was sufficient to support a branch of the On Leong Merchants Association, a national Chinese American fraternal society. The Association bought a building on Chartres Street on the edge of downtown Houston as its headquarters, and the local Chinese jokingly began to refer to the block where the On Leong building was as “Chinatown.” When the United States changed its immigration laws in 1965 to permit Chinese to migrate to the United States, Houston’s Chinese population grew and “Chinatown” began to attract a number of Chinese stores and restaurants, including the original location of Kim Son, the Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant which now has numerous other branches in the Houston area.
Like Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami, you have to travel a distance from downtown Houston to find the best Chinese food. Whereas in the first three cities you need to drive northeast, in Houston, go southwest from the city center for a dozen miles, first to Bellaire Blvd., and also further southwest to communities like Sugar Land, Stafford, and Missouri City. Interestingly, Houston followed a pattern similar to that of Los Angeles and San Francisco: despite the new wave of Chinese immigration that began after the 1965 change in the immigration laws, the downtown Chinatown remained the pre-eminent location for Chinese dining until the mid-1980s. In Houston, this meant the opening of Chinese restaurants on and near Bellaire Blvd. in Sharpstown, a neighborhood which took on a multicultural bent, attracting numerous Chinese, as well as Vietnamese residents.
The first Chinese restaurant to open on Bellaire Blvd. may have been Golden Palace, a dim sum and Hong Kong seafood restaurant, which remains in business to this day. As it far exceeds my 20-year rule for Chinese restaurants in the United States, it is well past its prime, but still deserves recognition for being a pioneer in the area of Houston that has literally wrested the designation of “Houston Chinatown” away from the original downtown Chinatown. As the Chinese community expanded in this area, a series of Chinese and Chinese-Vietnamese shopping centers sprang up westward on Bellaire Blvd., each full of top-notch Chinese restaurants. While the Chinese community has continued its geographic expansion beyond Bellaire Blvd., most of the worthwhile Chinese restaurants remain on Bellaire Blvd. itself.
Strangely, there is not the concentration on Bellaire Blvd. of other large banquet-sized Chinese dim sum/seafood palaces seen in most Chinese American communities. Only Ocean Palace seems to fit that description, with the bulk of the Bellaire Blvd. restaurants relatively modest in size. The excellent Arco Seafood has your typical dim sum and Hong Kong seafood menu, but is fairly small for that category of restaurant. But while Bellaire Blvd. may not have the concentration of banquet-sized Chinese restaurants, it sports something not seen in other Chinese American communities: a number of medium-sized sit-down dim sum specialist restaurants, such as Dim Sum King, HK Dim Sum, Golden Dim Sum, and Chinese Cuisine. Don’t let the size of these restaurants fool you — the dim sum served here is top quality, even better than what you get in Manhattan’s storied Chinatown.
But it’s not just dim sum and Hong Kong-style seafood on Bellaire Blvd. Hong Kong Food Street serves up great Hong Kong home-style cooking. And even more noteworthy is the rise of non-Cantonese eateries. A real eye-opener was the opening a few years ago of Classic Kitchen and its Beijing-style cuisine (along with Taiwanese standards), as it made its debut not long after authentic Beijing-style food first made an appearance in Los Angeles and San Francisco. This shows that Houston is keeping current with changing Chinese food trends in North America, which is more than can be said about the Chinese food in places like New York. Other notable non-Cantonese outposts on Bellaire Blvd. include Fu Fu Café and Yummy Kitchen for Taiwanese cuisine, Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, Golden Dumpling House, and Mala Sichuan Bistro. And Six Ping boasts savory and sweet baked goods to rival those found in the Chinese bakeries of the San Gabriel Valley.
As the Houston Chinese community moved beyond Bellaire Blvd., so did the selection of top Chinese restaurants. Perhaps Houston’s most revered Chinese restaurant, Fung’s Kitchen on Southwest Freeway, is your prototypical massive dim sum and seafood restaurant with live tanks. Moving out of the city limits, my personal favorite is Jade Garden in Sugar Land, which serves high quality dim sum at lunch, including some varieties I have never seen anywhere else in North America. Other notable Chinese restaurants in this part of the Houston area include King Bo in Missouri City for dim sum and Hong Kong cuisine, and a giant branch of Kim Son in Stafford for dim sum.
A potential third emerging area for Chinese dining, in Katy, west of Houston, is worth noting. One telltale sign of the growth of a Chinese American community is the opening of a Chinese supermarket. So when the 99 Ranch Market chain opened up in Katy a few years ago, something was afoot. However, there also is usually a significant lag time between the establishment of a local Chinese community and the opening of local authentic Chinese restaurants, as indicated by Houston downtown Chinatown’s culinary dominance through the mid-1980s. Consequently it is interesting to find that an authentic Chinese restaurant, Beijing Ranch, has opened on Pin Oak Road in Katy. However, most all of the authentic dishes are “off the menu,” so if you stick to the menu you’re going to leave thinking this is just another Americanized Chinese restaurant.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. “When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America,” Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. “As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once.” He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can’t use chopsticks.