Chinatown, Summer in the City

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Chinatown, USA

Inspired, of course, by the classic Lovin’ Spoonful song.

Despite the fact that we’re experiencing the longest, strongest heat wave since 1980, I decided that today would be a good day to roam around Chinatown and finish collecting information for a Press article I’m working on. So I grabbed one of my trusty partners in crime, Groovehouse, and we hit the streets.

Our first stop was Banana Leaf, one of the few Malaysian restaurants in Houston. I am constantly amazed that we don’t have more Malaysian places in a city like ours (and I’m not the only one). Malaysian cuisine combines the best of Thai, Indian and Chinese cooking into a delicious amalgamation of flavors and spices. You’ll find sweet peanut sauces and tropical dishes alongside spicy curries and mild fish head casseroles — Banana Leaf has something for everybody. On this visit, I had the roti canai (flat, doughy pancakes served with curry sauce), crispy fried tofu with cucumber and bean sprouts in satay sauce, a gingery masak lemak with shrimp, sambal shrimp with mango and — for dessert — more hot roti filled with butter and bananas. I won’t say too much more for now, lest I have nothing to write about later on, but it was one of the better meals I’ve had in recent memory — and that’s after eating at a $600 a night farm-to-table, five-starred restaurant on Wednesday that I thought might be the pinnacle of Texas restaurants. Groovehouse loved it, too.

Afterwards, I took him on a tour of the “new” Chinatown along Beltway 8. Since the “old” Chinatown just outside of downtown off Chenevert has all but dried up and blown away, too many die-hard ITLers are now missing out on one of Houston’s greatest and most fascinating landscapes. I first took him past the little-known Vietnam memorial located on Bellaire Boulevard, notable for the fact that it was financed by local southern Vietnamese business owners to thank American soldiers who tried to help them during the quagmire that was the Vietnam “War.” The memorial depicts an American soldier and a southern Vietnamese soldier fighting side by side and is remarkably moving for a statue located in a strip center parking lot.

To get out of the heat for a while, we went across the street to the Hong Kong City Mall. Fountains of questionably blue water flank a food court on one end (with such interesting restaurants as a killer crawfish and beignets kiosk and a pull-your-own frozen yogurt stand), while the long walk to the other end — all of it, thankfully, air conditioned and indoors — showcases a series of restaurants serving com dia and pho, bakeries, shops specializing in Asian CDs and DVDs, clothing stores, furniture and decor stores, electronics kiosks, toy stores and even a store that specializes in “comfort,” meaning it sells both cushy leather recliners and toilets with automatic lids and heated seats.

The best mass make you rest assured!

The best mass make you rest assured!

Our first stop was at a toy store, where we amused ourselves with the many knockoffs, trinkets and bizarre Engrish. The fun continued inside Hong Kong Market itself, the giant grocery store that anchors the mall.

De-Ter-Gents and House Holds

De-Ter-Gents and House Holds

In the rear of the store, the seafood counter was in its usual frenzy. Pearlescent blue crabs wrestled futily against people grabbing them up with tongs as we walked past large tanks filled with mournful looking catfish. The fishmongers were far too busy to mind our intrusive cameras. Not so at the meat counter, where I got one shot of some shimmering pink innards before being chased away in Vietnamese.

The seafood counter

The seafood counter

We busied ourselves in the drinks section, where Groovehouse stocked up on all manner of dubious Asian energy drinks (I fully expect him to be awake for ten days straight after drinking just one) and I grabbed a bottle of Japanese chardonnay. Yes, you read right. Japanese chardonnay. Taste test to come soon…

Shortly before getting chased away by the butcher...

Shortly before getting chased away by the butcher...

After checking out, we wandered around some more, stopping for a while to watch the United States play Brazil with a dozen fully-invested and very vocal Vietnamese men (of course they were cheering for the U.S.!). We finally came to Kho Bo, a jerky store I’ve wanted to try since reading Robb’s article on it last week. Heartbroken that we couldn’t get a little of each kind of jerky (they only sell a minimum of a half-pound of each), we settled on a box of cuttlefish jerky and some sweet sesame cakes. The cuttlefish jerky, I’m happy to announce, is fantastic. Groovehouse didn’t care for it, which makes me even happier (because I’m greedy…hello). It tastes strongly of the seashore, with a sweet inky undertone. Even though the term “jerky” is a clear misnomer, the crisp, dried cuttlefish make an excellent snack. In fact, I’m munching on some as I write.

Watching the game, when the U.S. was still winning

Watching the game, when the U.S. was still winning

Passing the food court again on our way out, a huge line had formed outside Teahouse, making us suddenly crave something cold and sweet. We trekked across Bellaire to Lee’s Sandwiches — not for their banh mi, but for some homemade ice cream and deli manjoo. At the ice cream counter, I quickly settled on an old favorite — the fragrant, slightly floral taro ice cream — while Groovehouse went with orange and vanilla. At my urging, though, he also tried a bite of durian ice cream. He gagged slightly and pronounced it “powerful.” I call it “rotting corpse,” but it’s all the same. We enjoyed the ice cream in the cool, sweetly-scented restaurant, but couldn’t leave without a sackful of deli manjoo. I watched Groovehouse turn from a nearly 40-year-old man to a giddy five-year-old, as he watched the little cakes being made in front of his eyes. The hot custard and savory corn cakes didn’t disappoint, as he happily munched his way through a sack on the way home.

Fresh deli manjoo cakes at Lee's

Fresh deli manjoo cakes at Lee's

The next time you feel like you’ve seen everything Houston has to offer, take a trip to the new Chinatown. They could easily adopt the old Texas tourism logo: It’s like a whole other country.

See the entire photo set from the day at Flickr.

8 responses to “Chinatown, Summer in the City

  1. “I watched Groovehouse turn from a nearly 40-year-old man to a giddy five-year-old”

    –Really? Was it that obvious? Must’ve been.

    Tell you what though, deli manjoo, is wicked tasty good!

  2. Deli manjoo is tasty while hot – like doughnuts, something disappears when it cools, and becomes a little tough.

  3. Giving the fact that I’ve been 34 years out of the city, and spent the past two years in Africa, I suppose it’s not surprising that I had no idea there was a Chinatown in Houston! Your blog is lovely and full of great information. I’ll be back.

  4. I love all the crazy “meat” at the Hong Kong Market. Thanks for the great post. I’m glad to see you posting more regularly again!

  5. love banana leaf. love that whole crazy shopping center. i could live in it.

  6. If you enjoy Malaysian food then you should definetely make the trip to Southeast Asia for a visit. Nothing abroad can compare to the food from the Motherland – it nourishes and sustains the soul. =)

    Have you ever watched “On the Road Again” with Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow? It’s one of my fav shows on the Food Channel along with Bourdain and Zimmerman.

  7. Totally miss chinatown area, we lived one block off Bellaire for the last two years, and driving home on Friday nights meant garlic infused neighborhoods. You know, kind of like you know it is winter when you smell chimney fireplaces? Yeah…. like that, but garlic.

    Some great restaurants and stores there, okay, now I have to run back over to Welcome Food Store and restock my pantry, maybe with a stop by Juice Box!

    Thanks for the great article!

  8. Thanks so much for your time in writing this. After reading the reviews on Yelp and on here, it’s further cemented my decision to try Banana Leaf. Thanks again!

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