Dumpling Crawl, Part The First

My fellow Chowhounds and I hit the streets of Chinatown on Sunday afternoon, pounding the pavement in search of the perfect soup dumpling.  Yes, folks — it was a good, old-fashioned dumpling crawl (not to be confused with a good, old-fashioned walkoff).

Chinatown FountainThis isn’t where we started; I just like this fountain in front of the Southern News Group building (a local Chinese newspaper).

Starting at 11:30am, we hit Fu Fu Cafe first, which recently won the Houston Press award for Best Dumpling.  That’s saying quite a lot in a town like Houston with so many dumpling joints to choose from, so we decided to start at the top.  Jenny, the head Hound, ordered for us in Mandarin at all of the places we went on Sunday, which only increased my enjoyment of the afternoon (I really love listening to other languages, which a polyglot city like Houston caters to nicely).

Beijing DumplingsBeijing-style pan-fried dumplings.

At Fu Fu, we ordered their steamed pork dumplings, the Beijing pan-fried dumplings and a few orders of scallion pancakes for good measure.  The soup in the dumplings was by far the best here.  The dumplings themselves were huge, with soft, doughy skin that didn’t break as you separated each dumpling from its friends.   The soup was mild, salty and savory, the ideal counterpart to the downy dough and little nugget of steamed pork inside.  Their pan-fried dumplings were also fantastic, with a mysterious smoky flavor that we decided must have come from the super hot oil in which they were fried.  I topped my crispy scallion pancakes with generous portions of spicy Sri Racha sauce and thought of heaven.  This was a meal.  I was almost afraid to go to the next restaurant, as I felt it wouldn’t possibly live up to the delicious bounty we’d just eaten.

Scallion PancakeI could have eaten my weight in scallion pancakes. The restraint I showed was highly admirable, people. HIGHLY ADMIRABLE.

And, of course, it didn’t.  Classic Kitchen was our next stop, across Bellaire from Fu Fu and a world away in terms of service and quality.  It has certain qualities going for it — it’s clean, bright and airy inside.  The clientele definitely looks like they know their dumplings.  And the kitchen is relatively open — always a good sign.  But they were less than enthused about our large group of people: ten of us, to be exact.  They didn’t want to seat us, and they weren’t polite about it.  Jenny eventually wrangled a table for us, but the staff refused to bring us anything to drink and took away our chopsticks, literally throwing a pile of forks on the table and haughtily walking off.

Classic MenuBefore they took our chopsticks away from us.

We managed to get some dumplings, and even wrangled a specialty breakfast item from the kitchen — a donut-type sweet bread wrapped in an omelette with cilantro, wrapped in a crepe/tortilla-ish thing.  It was, despite that admittedly disgusting-sounding description, delicious.  We also had a plate of boiled peanuts with cucumbers that I thought were delicious, although they remained mostly untouched.  I would have eaten them all if I wasn’t trying to pace myself.

Taiwanese BreakfastTaiwanese breakfast oddity.

What we didn’t get at Classic Kitchen was any drinks (they wouldn’t even bring us water) or any semblance of service.  It’s a shame, really, since they could have had ten new happy customers and instead just ended up with ten really pissed off foodies.  Never good for a restaurant, no matter how good their food may be.  And after all that?  Their dumplings weren’t even that great.  They tore the moment you touched them, spilling out all of the precious soup inside and effectively ruining the dish.

Boiled PeanutsDangerously addictive boiled peanuts.

After our rather miserable experience at Classic Kitchen, there was nowhere to go but up.  We hit the famous Lai Lai Dumpling House next, one of the oldest dumpling places in town.  As Jenny noted, it was clear from the moment we went in that this place had been around for a while.  The clientele has gentrified from predominantly Chinese to mostly American.  The only Chinese faces we encountered were the kitchen and wait staff.  Their food has also gentrified to meet American tastes.

More on the weekend’s dumpling crawl tomorrow, including reviews of Lai Lai’s, Sichuan Cuisine, Lee’s Sandwiches (not Chinese, I know) and a few other gems.

In the meantime, if you want to read more, Jenny’s account of our afternoon is much more detailed than mine (and uses the correct terminology!) and anonymouseater’s account is straightforward and picturesque.

Advertisements

I’m Not An Addict

Really, I’m not.  It’s just a little…infatuation.  Harmless.

Oh, who am I kidding?  I LOVE YOU, KIMCHI FRIED RICE.  Screw the rest of the world!  Let’s run away together and shack up on a beach in Goa and spend our days together in  spicy-rice-y-onion-y-cabbage-y bliss!  Of course, this might not be as pleasant for you, since you’re getting eaten and digested every day…  I didn’t say this would be a perfect plan.

In case you can’t tell, I went back to Super H Mart for lunch today and for another helping of their kimchi fried rice.  It’s — in my estimation, at least — the perfect fast food.  You get rice, onions, chunks of thick bacon and cabbage all in a spicy sauce with a fried egg on top.  And it’s served with a side of extra cabbage!  And pickled radish!  And a bowl of onion broth!  What more could you possiby want out of a meal?  NOTHING, I tell you.  NOTHING.

In addition to being the crack dealer to my addiction, Super H Mart also provides an almost endless amount of entertainment while you’re there.  Exhibit 1: as I was pulling into the parking lot, I realized that my way was blocked by a shopping cart.  I put the car in park and got out to move the shopping cart out of the way.

As soon as I got back into my car, I was immediately blocked by another random object in the road: Exhibit 1A: a stroller.  Complete with baby.  A woman had pushed the stroller halfway into the street, then turned around to greet a friend.  The two of them were happily chatting away on the curb while the stroller (COMPLETE WITH BABY!!!) sat in the middle of the street, unattended.

Being the kind soul that I am, I did what any other thoughtful person would do in this situation.  I rolled down my window and yelled at the idiot woman to get her damn baby.  She shot me a surprised look and hustled into the street to remove her baby from the middle of the road.  Hey, at least I didn’t honk.

Exhibit 2: as I eagerly awaited my lunch in the food court, I witnessed two little old Korean ladies getting yelled at by another little old Korean lady because they had left their used trays and dishes on the table.  The best part?  The one doing the yelling was an employee.  Gotta love stores where the employees clearly just don’t have time for customers’ BS and totally call them on it, loudly.

Later, after grabbing some cans of green tea for the road, I passed the Pocky display.  Poor choice of exit route.  I can’t pass Pocky displays (or Pepero displays) without grabbing at least one box.  I stood in front of it, happily agog at the many kinds of Pocky for sale.  I couldn’t choose which box to get.  But then…I found it.

Exhibit 3: Men’s Pocky.  What?  Is this a marketing gimmick like the ones that Yorkie bars use?  Either way, I felt compelled to buy a box of Men’s Pocky and condemn the sexist Japanese candy-making regime with my act of defiance.

It turns out that Men’s Pocky is quite boring, and not at all the manly type of candy I expected (you know, tasting of, like, gunpowder and whiskey and Old Spice with bits of dead deer stuck to it).  It’s just bitter chocolate.  I should have stuck to my original plan and gotten some delicious Marble Tea Pocky.  This feminism thing isn’t getting me anywhere…

Regardless, I’ll most likely be back at Super H Mart the first chance I get, babies in strollers blocking the road and sexist Pocky be damned!  I WILL HAVE MY KIMCHI FRIED RICE.

Super Happy Fun Land

My husband and I have interesting little conversations sometimes, like this one yesterday:

Me:  Ow!  The dog scratched my nose and lip!  Bugger!

Richard:  Here, let’s have a look.  Oh, yeah.  That looks pretty nasty.

Me:  *goes to look in mirror*  Hmm.  I don’t see anything…

Richard:  Oh, right; that’s just your face.

Super H Mart

The other day as we were taking a short cut down Westview, I pointed to Super H Mart as we passed Blalock and we had another of our short but ridiculous exchanges.  “Look!  That’s where I’m going for our Chowhound lunch tomorrow, Mac!” I exclaimed excitedly (quick note: I call my husband Mac, even though his name is Richard…that isn’t confusing, right?).

“What is it?”  Richard asked.

“It’s a Korean grocery store cum food court.”

“Shouldn’t it be called Super K Mart then?”

“Yeah.  I think that name was already taken, Mac.”

Pulling up to Super H Mart the next day, I could barely wait to get inside and get at the much-ballyhooed food court and fish counter.  I had purposely not eaten anything for breakfast or lunch in anticipation of the gorging that was soon to commence.  And, boy, was I ever NOT disappointed.

Super H Mart is a chain of Korean/Asian grocery stores based in California, with locations throughout the United States.  They have a heavy presence in the Northeast and are finally opening stores in Texas with concurrent grand openings in Carrollton (a heavily-Asian suburb of Dallas) and good ol’ Houston.  The location in Houston is in a refurbished Randall’s and the Super H Mart folks have done such a fantastic job of it, that you’d think the place was brand-new.

Absolutely sparkling inside, Super H Mart is entirely devoid of the typical smell associated with Asian markets such as Hong Kong Market and Komart.  Fellow CHs and I debated whether or not that spicy-cabbagey-fishy smell would come with time.  But there’s so much more to Super H Mart than just food: you feel as if you’ve been transported into a high-end mall in Seoul, complete with a perfume shop, bakery, home appliances and housewares section, jewelry store and accessories boutique.

As we waited for fellow CHs to show up, I roamed around to begin taking pictures.  This, apparently, is frowned upon by the employees at Super H Mart, as I found out when a large Korean lady with a ladle came out of the back of store to angrily chase me away when I took a picture of the kimchi bar.  During the rest of my visit, I took my pictures slightly more surreptitiously and ultimately escaped unscathed.

Let’s let the rest of the visit be told in pictures, shall we?

Super H Mart Produce

This photo makes it look as if Super H Mart wasn’t crowded.  Nothing could be further from the truth; the place was absolutely crammed with people.  I guess I just caught a lucky moment here in the produce section.  Their produce is fresh and seriously cheap.  My mother and I filled our basket with lots of goodies here, including jackfruit and arugula.

Super H Bakery

The bakery — well-known Korean-owned chain Tous Les Jours — is directly on your right as you come in.  If you don’t want to spend the afternoon in a guilt-ridden carb-induced coma, move past as quickly as possible.  Otherwise, prepare to fight the crowds and get some freshly-baked bread with walnut creme in the center or a few savory red bean rolls.

Super H Cakes

Need a cake for a special event?  You won’t find cakes like this anywhere else in Houston.

Toreore

The famous ToreOre chicken stand.  Motto?  “Chicken & Joy”  What’s not to love?  Their sweet and spicy chicken lives up to its name, with a delicately sweet and crispy exterior that gives way to a dark rumble of spiciness that doesn’t fully hit you until around a minute after you’ve taken a bite.  Highly recommended.

Super H Mart Food Court

The rest of the food court, which includes Korean Snack (with ramen and other little snacky bits), Fisher’s Market (for sushi and udon), China Factory and Sobahn Express.  The latter offers a tempting array of bimbimbap and bulgogi, but isn’t actually “express.”  During our visit, orders were taking upwards of one hour to prepare.

Food Sprawl 1

Some of the many dishes we ordered, including a dragon roll (which was excellent, save for the imitation “krab” that was used in the center), ramen with dumplings, mayonnaise shrimp and a salmon roll.  The ramen in particular was wonderful, but the sushi was only average (as to be expected at a Korean fast food court, I suppose) and the drink selection was poor.  I hoped for cans or bottles of green tea or jasmine tea, at the very least.  Instead, there was only a limited selection of canned Coke products.

Cold Noodles

Cold noodles, similar to the Vietnamese dish I love so much — bun.  Something else to note about the food court is that tables and chairs are pricey real estate.  People arrive early and stake them out for large groups, and are not very friendly when questioned about it.  You can always get your food to go, of course…

Food Sprawl 3

Everything else destroyed — including my favorite dish of the day, the kimchi fried rice — CHs turned to a bag of fresh lychees for dessert.

Super H Kimchi

All your kimchi are belong to us.

Little Octopus

Last but not least, my favorite: baby octopus.  One day, I shall return for you, my darlings!

I wish that I’d gotten more pictures of the store itself, but — as I said — I didn’t want to leave with ladle marks across my back.  Want to see more?  You’ll just have to check out Super H Mart for yourself!

Sunday Evening Coming Down

Two recent discoveries of differing importance yet similar amusement level:

  1. Viet World Kitchen: a vertiable online Bible of Vietnamese cuisine, recipes, techniques, history and even pronunciation (huzzah!).  If you are even one bit interested in anything to do with the intriguing and intoxicatingly rich culture of Vietnamese food, you will love this website.  Click on the “What’s Cooking” section for a list of interesting articles that will keep you occupied for days.  Of special local interest, the author of the website makes note of the fact (under the “Shopping & Dining” section) that Houston not only has one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the United States, we are also home to the Southeast’s (I’ll let that one go…) largest Asian indoor mall, the popular Hong Kong City Mall.  She notes something I’ve always found odd: although it’s named after Hong Kong, the mall actually houses mostly Vietnamese stores and restaurants.
  2. Apparently, God and I don’t have all that much in common after all: he hates onions on pizza (caution: NSFW language ahead).  I also happen to prefer my Patrick Swayze in Donnie Darko instead of Roadhouse.  But that’s a discussion for another day, and probably another blog.

Hope you enjoyed your weekend, folks!

Image courtesy of www.visithoustontexas.com.

***********************************************************************

P.S.  If you’re wondering about the title for some reason, listen to this and relish the man’s talent.

P.P.S.  If, after that, you’re still in the mood to take my music recommendations, buy this right now.  You’ll never look back.

Top 10 Cheap Eats in Houston

As promised, Food In Houston has posted their newest Top 10 list of “Cheap Restaurants” here in town. And it’s a doozy…

Top 10 Cheap Restauarants in Houston

I am ecstatic — ecstatic, I tell you — to see Vieng Thai included on the list. Ever since Robb Walsh mentioned this place a few years back in a Houston Press article (yeah…I can’t say that I found it myself, unfortunately), I have been a devoted follower.

This is a double-edged sword, though. I have found Vieng Thai’s food to be so wonderful that now any other Thai food tastes sickly sweet and miserable to me. Their pad see ew (fried noodles with pork, egg and Chinese broccoli) is unparalleled, with fresh strips of Chinese broccoli (it irritates me beyond words when Thai restaurants use regular broccoli in pad see ew…) and a delicate soy-based sauce. Their som tam (green papaya salad) is transcendent and will make you question the reason that you ever used lettuce as a salad base.

In addition to the Top 10, there are so many other great suggestions on Anonymouseater’s runners-up list that you could happily eat your way through some of the city’s best restaurants without ruining your budget. Go check out the rest and happy eating!

Phở One

Phở One
April 17, 2008

I’ve passed Phở One many, many times while on my way to the warm, waiting arms of Bistro Le Cep and keep telling myself that “One of these days…I swear I’m finally going to try that place!”  Today was that day.

And, dear God, am I glad that I did.

Phở One was packed when I arrived with my lunch companions.  Always a good sign in my book…  The staff were friendly and acted as excited to see us as if we were the only customers in the restaurant.  Since there were three of us, we decided to go family-style with the appetizers and entrees, to maximize our eating potential.

Now, a word of warning:  Phở One does not have the traditional foreigners-catering-to-clueless-Americans menu whereby there are pictures of the food which you can simply point to, perhaps while grunting.  They do have some helpful explanations of the various dishes, in case you’re unfamiliar with the delicious bounty of Vietnamese cuisine.  They do not, however, have pronunciations of the dishes which are — invariably — never pronounced as they are spelled (phở is “fuh,” bun is “boon,” thit is “tit,” etc.).  So, if you’re like me and either have an extremely limited Vietnamese vocabulary or none at all, simply order by the menu numbers, such as B-6 or C-4.  Leave the mangled pronunciations to the next table.

We ordered two different types of spring rolls to start: your garden-variety fried rolls and your soft, rice paper rolls.  The soft rolls had the added benefit of having enormous strips of barbecued chicken and hoisin sauce inside; they were much heartier than your typical spring roll.  We also ordered chè ba màu along with our jasmine iced teas, so that they would be nice and melty by the end of the meal.

The entrees came out more quickly than expected.  The other patrons seemed to be getting the same quick, efficient service, making Phở One a good choice for a lunch hour destination.  We ordered the standard phở tái (rice noodle soup with thin strips of medium-rare beef and various herbs); another standard, bún thịt nướng (vermicelli with barbecued pork and fresh vegetables); and a bit of an outsider, cơm tấm bi cha trung opla (rice with shredded pork, pork loaf and one egg, sunny side up).  I call the cơm tấm bi cham trung opla the outsider since I wouldn’t normally order my cơm tấm with an egg…or pork loaf.  But that’s the way my dining companion likes hers, and so that’s the way we had it.

I have to say, I really liked the egg with the cơm tấm.  It gave the whole thing an almost chicken-fried rice feel, frankly.  It was served with the traditional bowl of broth, meant to wet your throat while eating so much sticky rice.  I highly recommend it as an alternative to the regular routine of phở.

The phở tái itself was simply divine: fragrant, fresh and addictive.  When my Vietnamese dining companion jokingly complained that Phở One didn’t have any meatball phở (bò viên) on their menu, the waiter simply grinned and within a minute had brought out a small bowl filled with meatballs.  He told her in Vietnamese, “You have to know to order them!”  A good tip, since their meatballs are perhaps the best bò viên I’ve ever tasted.

My bún thịt nướng was the same wonderful comfort food that I’ve known and loved since college.  I confess to almost always ordering bún with chopped up eggrolls — perhaps the Vietnamese equivalent of putting macaroni and cheese on your grilled cheese sandwich, if we’re sticking to the comfort food analogy — which isn’t very good for you, but stills your soul.  Today, however, I stuck with traditional pork and felt, suddenly and startingly, like a grown-up.  It was an odd thought to associate with a bowl of noodles, but I comforted myself that at least I was a grown-up with fun taste in food.

Throughout the meal, the sight of the chè ba màu waiting for us was almost like gilt on a lily.  We were all stuffed by the end of our family-style dig-in, but managed to make room for our dessert drink.  If you’re put off by the idea of beans — mung beans, at that — in your dessert and/or drink and/or dessert drink, please just do me a favor and try one little spoonful of chè ba màu.  I promise that it will change your entire outlook on beans as a sweet, delicious dessert alternative.  It might not make you crave chocolate any less, but you’ll definitely broaden your sweet-tooth horizons.  And that’s never a bad thing…  The chè ba màu at Phở One was like their meatballs: probably the best I’ve ever had.

The whole atmosphere in Phở One is very traditional: you receive a large spoon and a pair of chopsticks with which to eat your phở; there is the always-amusing wheel of condiments on the table containing all the old favorites (hoisin sauce, fish sauce, chili sauce, etc.); as previously mentioned, the cơm tấm dishes come with a bowl of nước chấm to wash down the rice; and, perhaps most importantly, the check is not brought to your table.  The Vietnamese consider it quite rude to bring a tab directly to a table, since it is seen as “rushing” the customer out of the restaurant.  You’ll need to pay up front.

If you’re in the neighborhood and happen to be craving not just phở, but any other Vietnamese food, I couldn’t reccommend Phở One any more highly.  The prices are reasonable, the staff are friendly and the food is sitting at about an eleven on the one to ten scale.  Just remember their delicious meatballs aren’t on the menu!

Bánh Mì Me, Baby

My whole office smells of pickled daikon and shredded pork skin.

Normally, this would be a bad thing.  But today it’s the pleasant aroma reminding me of the lovely bánh mì I had for lunch today.  My friend Sarah and I had a sudden craving for bánh mì at lunch as we drove through Houston’s enormous Chinatown/Little Saigon on our way back to the office after running errands.

Bánh mì is a kind of sandwhich that’s a tribute to the intoxicating mix of cultures stemming from that short period of time when Vietnam was called “French Indochina.”  The bánh mì developed as countryside food — a portable, working man’s lunch — made from French baguettes and meat with uniquely Vietnamese toppings, such as Vietnamese cilantro, daikon and pickled carrots.  My bánh mì today was absolutely crammed all of those veggies, as well as thick pieces of fresh jalapenos.  The sandwich doesn’t weigh you down or make you feel overly full; it’s a light, sweet, refreshing meal that provides a happy pick-me-up in the middle of the day when you most need it.

We stopped at the famous Lee’s Sandwiches on Bellaire and — after indecorously salivating at the mere smell of the place upon walking inside — proceeded to pig out on shredded pork bánh mì and cà phê sữa (strong coffee with condensed milk, on ice: the original Frappucino).  The tiny woman behind the counter at Lee’s initially questioned my order: “Are you sure you want that?  It has pork skin in it.”

My answer:  “If I didn’t know it had pork skin in it already, and you were just now informing me of that fact, I would want it even more.”

She just stared at me blankly; to be fair, in retrospect, I wasn’t making a lot of sense.  I was just trying to get across the point that YES, I LOVE PORK SKIN MORE THAN YOU KNOW.  PLEASE HURRY UP AND MAKE ME A SANDWICH.  I need to work on my verbal communication skills, I think.

The sandwiches at Lee’s are beautiful, delicious and enormous.  I ended up packing away half of it and saving it for later, hence the pleasing smell currently permeating my office.  But I couldn’t come back with just half a bánh mì.

Sarah and I poked around the rest of Lee’s (which is huge and more like a deli/market than just your average sandwhich shop), trying to decide which pastries we wanted to bring home with us.  We finally ended up at a little counter where a man was making tiny puff pastries — similar to choux — with dollops of durian-flavored custard inside.  We hung around staring at the process for long enough that he finally just started handing them over to us.  We ate the little pastries with gleeful abandon, despite his warnings that they were “so, so hot!”  Of course, after sampling so many, we had to buy some and left with two bags full of hot durian pastries.

Back at my office, I took one of the bags to my boss — who is Vietnamese — and she pounced on them as quickly as Sarah and I had.

“Where did you get these?!” she asked excitedly.  “Ah!  I see!  You go to Lee’s without me!”

“Hey, at least I brought you something,” I replied with a grin.

“The boys will be so happy when I bring these home,” she laughed.  “You make me good mom tonight!”

There’s nothing like good Vietnamese food to cheer you up on a nasty, wet, rainy Thursday.  Feeling down?  I suggest a bánh mì and some coffee and pastries.  They’ll cure what ails you.