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).
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).
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.
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.
Before 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.
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.
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.