When I started writing about restaurants in Houston that began with the inaugural edition of Houston Dining on the Cheap published in 2002, with an easily overlooked exception or two, the only restaurants that were serving dishes beyond the familiar Chinese-American staples in all their gloppiness and simplicity were in and around Bellaire Boulevard. The number of those more authentic Chinese restaurants has grown with growth of immigration and migration from China. Along with those working the Medical Center, the number of Chinese in Houston has grown significantly, and it’s often professionals at companies inside the Loop, like my own. It can pay to help feed them. That’s been a boon to Houston diners, regardless of origin, with many more appealing Chinese restaurants, an increased diversity in cuisines, and a few really fine values, too.
With that greater range of Chinese fare available, there’s been an explosion of Sichuan restaurants and spicy Sichuan dishes in the past decade. That classic Sichuan dish, kung pao chicken, has long been around but it wasn’t made like it was made in its home province, in part because it didn’t have uniquely flavored and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Feared as carriers of a bacterial disease, Sichuan peppercorns were banned in this country from 1968 until 2005. Chinese food here has gotten a lot better, and more Sichuan since then. There’s a lot of Sichuan cooking to be encountered here now. It’s popular with diners, seemingly nearly everywhere.
Along with kung pao chicken and its nearly as frequently seen Sichuan brethren, mapo tofu, Shanghai’s soup dumplings and the famous Peking duck are found in most local Chinese restaurants. Hot pots are a big draw for Chinese patrons, but don’t have nearly the appeal beyond. And General Tso’s Chicken might never be retired from the field as most Chinese restaurants continue to battle for customers of all stripes.
Listed alphabetically, and each are more enjoyable when eaten and dishes shared with others.
Chengdu Taste – Sichuan – This Sichuan specialist, named after the capital of that province, actually has its roots in Los Angeles. Popular with transplants from China, it’s a nice fit amidst a clutter of other restaurants on Bellaire Boulevard, serving an array of both locally popular Sichuan dishes along with earthier preparations that might not play as well elsewhere in the city. Intestines, chicken gizzards, beef tripe and pork hock star along with kung pao chicken and sauteed green beans. Chinatown
Cooking Girl – Sichuan – This was first of the in-town, authentically Chinese restaurants when it opened from a Chongqing native in 2015 in a small space in the heart of Montrose – now housing Cucharita – earning plenty of local attention and spawning Pepper Twins. It has changed and grown, now in three user-friendly and friendly locations that are not intimidating for the casual Chinese food consumer, except for the tiny parking lot at the smart Montrose location, and maybe the noted Mr. and Mrs. Smith appetizer, which features beef tendon and tripe there. It is worth a try, though. Montrose, Medical Center, Sugar Land
Duck N Bao – Sichuan / Peking Duck – Serving a contemporary take on Chinese fare “while keeping it authentic,” this duo specializes in “Peking duck, soup dumplings, and Sichuan cuisine.” The menus, which include some dim sum item, too, actually make sense, especially for areas far from Bellaire Boulevard. The owners are, fairly appropriately, from Beijing and Sichuan province and offer an array of usually well-executed preparations that will appeal to a gamut of customers. There’s more beef than at most Chinese restaurants and several widely recognized dishes. Nicely, and reflecting its names, Peking Duck can be had without advance order and even in half-orders. Memorial Park, Cypress
Fung’s Kitchen – Dim Sum / Cantonese Seafood – Returning from an enforced two-year hiatus due to a fire in late 2022, the cart-driven and wide-ranging dim sum service hit its stride more quickly than its later-in-the-day seafood emphasis. It’s the best, and most fun, dim sum spot in the area. Tanks hold lobster, a restaurant specialty, that can be prepared in a number of ways, featuring jalapeño and garlic, black pepper, black bean, coconut curry and even in a hot pot. Blue crabs appear in a number of preparations, even in soft shell form, as do another top local product, shrimp. The menu is voluminous; Peking duck, of course, a section highlighting free-range chicken, and a number of noodle and fried rice items that should be able to entice most palates. After the rebuild, the expansive setting is nicer, more inviting than ever, sitting at what is about the eastern gateway to restaurant-mad Bellaire Boulevard. Chinatown
Hai Cang Harbor – Cantonese Seafood – Set in one of the many strip centers along Bellaire Boulevard that’s adorned with live sea creatures along the walls – fish, lobsters, crabs, large geoduck clams, spot prawns, and striking marbled goby swimming in the large tanks – that are primed to star in a meal. Dungeness crabs are a specialty along with one of the whole steamed fishes. Less grand, traditional preparations like Shrimp with Scrambled Egg and Walnut Shrimp with Mayo Sauce can also aptly satisfy. The menu is huge, but the helpful staff can provide recommendations or there are dinners for six, eight and ten that might be easiest of all with a group. Chinatown
Lao Sze Chuan – Sichuan – These two branches of a Chicago-based chain provide nicer settings than most for Sichuan-rooted cooking that’s aimed for a broad audience with a menu – tendon, tripe and lung aren’t to be found – and dishes like its signature twice cooked pork that can delight. BYOB. Chinatown, Montrose
Mala Sichuan Bistro – Sichuan – Named after the unique numbing and hot flavors of Sichuan cooking, the “ma” and the “la,” its initial location along Bellaire Boulevard helped popularize that cuisine to non-Chinese in Houston, incorporating a decent beverage program, in part. And the second spot, in the heart of Montrose, has the look of a modern Asian bistro. But the food is the draw. The House Special Funky Cold Noodles, Kung Pao Chicken with the Sichuan peppercorns, and Dry Pot Fish Fillet – battered and deep fried fillet seasoned with ginger, garlic, dry red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns – are a few usual standouts. Chinatown, Montrose, Heights, Sugar Land, Katy
Mama’s Kitchen – Sichuan – An easy-to-overlook spot nearly across Richmond from a Costco amidst a flurry of other small eateries, this churns out some tasty, if fairly straightforward Sichuan fare. The Szechuan Stir-Fried Lamb (with pickled pepper, parsley, ginger, garlic, dried red pepper and sliced serranos), the similar Szechuan Stir-Fried Beef, its take on Spicy Chicken Chunks, and the Pan-Fried Pork are a few of the frequently ordered winners. The menu hosts a number of popular Sichuan-rooted preparations among a variety of proteins, vegetable dishes, fried rice, a few hot pots, and also a few smoothies and milk teas. Greenway Plaza
Mein – Cantonese – With a stylish, contemporary setting in Chinatown, this “offers food that reflects the immigrant Cantonese experience.” It hits the right notes with plenty of appealing preparations like Charsiu, honey roasted pork here, the chilled Hand Pulled Chicken featuring poached free-range chicken, Garlic Eggplant, and the spicy Drunken Noodles with shrimp. Reflecting that emigrant experience from Canton, there are also some Vietnamese, Thai and Singaporean items. Chinatown
Ocean Palace – Cantonese Seafood / Dim Sum – This giant two-story restaurant – nearly 40,000 square feet of it – has anchored a corner of Hong Kong City Mall for nearly a quarter century. Serving dim sum daily via cart to a multi-cultural local crowd daily until 5:00, the offerings are especially grand on Sundays. But it might be a better bet for its on-the-menu Cantonese cooking that’s heavy on the seafood with items like Fried Salt and Pepper Dungeness Crab, Lobster with Ginger and Scallions, and the House Special Crispy Fried Egg Noodles. Chinatown
One Dragon – Shanghainese – Tucked into a strip center space on Bellaire Boulevard, this quaint spot seating less than forty has been sought out for their delicious and delicately sheathed soup dumplings that are filled with pork or pork and shrimp, the standard in the city. Other Shanghai specialties, the crispy bottom bao with shrimp or pork, braised pork belly with hard-boiled eggs, and scallion pancakes are also tough to pass on. The kitchen does well with larger plates featuring beef and duck, and likely hairy crab, too, if it was available. Chinatown
Pepper Twins – Sichuan – Eclipsing its parent Cooking Girl, these Sichuan stalwarts distinguish themselves with the noticeably high quality of the meats, which is readily apparent with the chicken dishes. Tilapia is the fish of choice here, but the fish preparations like Hot Diving Fish and Fish Loves Tofu are loved by many Chinese patrons. Their versions of Ma Po Tofu and Mongolian Beef, the very spicy Pepper Twins and starters Spicy Potato Silk with Vinegar and Dry-Fried Green Beans are a few of the stars. To note, the Kirby and San Felipe locations are more consistent than the one on West Gray, which has noticeably slipped. Montrose, Upper Kirby District, Galleria Area
Regal Seafood House & Lounge – Cantonese / Dim Sum – One of the best Chinese restaurants in the area. At least moniker that is what a fair number of Chinese nationals believe and they pack the restaurant on a regular basis for Cantonese and Honk Kong-style cuisine, mostly seafood, plus one of the better versions of Peking duck in the city. The duck is even cut in front of you. Dim sum items are also served, and though these might not quite reach level of Fung’s Kitchen further north on the freeway, these can be quite tasty, and even has well-crafted versions of Shanghai’s soup dumplings. The interior includes a cozy bar area off the entrance – the “Lounge” in the name – banquettes complementary the necessary large round tables and shiny white marble-like walls. Somewhat modern. Muted. Pleasant. This is not your typical Chinatown restaurant, it’s nicer and service is better, if not overly polished, especially if you don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. Without those language skills or a dining companion in the know, the menu can be a little interesting to navigate, but with the quality of the cooking, it will like be a very enjoyable journey. Sugar Land
Taste of Mulan – Dim Sum – Yes, it’s got a silly name and an unpromising location in a dull strip center along side wing and a pizza chain spots, but this dishes some nice dim sum staples and more daily by menu card. It’s not that cheap, but a trio or quartet of those small plates makes for a satisfying visit. There’s also another menu of the more-familiar Sichuan and other items, but are best ignored. Midtown
Tim Ho Wan – Dim Sum – A famed chain originally from Hong Kong – where it held a Michelin star for over a decade – and with several stateside locations, this Katy Asian Town spot has been packed with customers since finally opening in 2022. Serving well-crafted versions of the familiar dim sum items via menu – except a contemporary baked rather than steamed take on char siu bao – service is noticeably attentive to complement the satisfying fare. There are also good-sized soups serving as a meal for the single diner. Katy
Wanna Bao – Shanghainese / Sichuan – Proclaiming itself on its signage as “Hearty Chinese Bistro / Dumpling House.” It is. And a good one at that, and in a hip, industrial-sparse bistro-like setting at the edge of Midtown is well beyond what would be typical of a similar place along Bellaire Boulevard, serving both dishes from Shanghai, including soup dumplings, of course, and the madly popular spicy Sichuan region, Wanna Bao succeeds with both – as with both ends of its signage, the dumplings for certain. Midtown
One of the flavorful creations found at Mein