Houston’s Chinatown, along with the Bellaire corridor, has been calling me. I haven’t been able to get out on the road like I’ve wanted to. To keep from going crazy, I decided to be a tourist in my own town and kick up some exotic adventure.
Houston Chinatown or Asiatown?
Houston’s Chinatown seems out of date as a nickname. Chinese flooded to the US from 1849-1882 because of the gold rush and transcontinental railroad construction.
Since 1970, Houston’s Chinatown population also includes Vietnamese, Thai, Filipinos, Malaysians, Koreans and other Asians.
According to a CNN article, Houston now has the second largest Asian population in the US (behind Los Angeles). A friend who slices and dices census info professionally and keeps me honest sent me data that Houston is actually the seventh largest Asian population.
Houston still has a huge Asian community – over half a million.
Many originally immigrated from coastal areas. Some were fisherman and farmers and shrimpers. Like Houston, their homelands were humid, lush and green.
Asian immigrants influence Houston
Socially, Houston was something else. But that’s the beauty of the United States. While recent arrivals are adapting to our ways, they are also changing us. Like the Mexicans, Central and South Americans have weaned us off ketchup and onto salsa – both the condiment and the dance.
Even street names have been adapted.
“Street signs along Bellaire Boulevard from South Gessner to roughly Beltway 8 are posted in Mandarin characters as well as English script but go further west and they change to Vietnamese.” – CNN Travel
The Chinese name for Bellaire translates to “Hundreds of Profits,” while the Vietnamese have renamed the same street Saigon Boulevard.
3 Reasons to Visit Houston’s Chinatown – Plus My Favorite Haunts
If you haven’t visited Houston and spent a day in Chinatown, book a trip right now. If you live in Houston and haven’t visited this treasure, get to it.
Maybe some highlights from my last few excursions will motivate you.
1. Dining and Snacking Options
Houston’s Chinatown is filled with restaurants, bakeries, and tea houses. Get traditional Chinese food, dim sum or sushi. Or try Vietnamese dishes like bahn mi and bun rieu, fusion noodles and crawfish, or ramen.
If you don’t know what these last menu items are, that’s a good reason to try them. Check out Houston’s Eaters top ten Chinatown restaurants for some direction.
My current favorite for a light meal: Okome Don Poke
Along with being less expensive than sushi, poke feeds the need for slightly different. And my favorite is Okome Don, at 9938 Bellaire Blvd. just east of the Beltway in a strip center.
This was my third or fourth visit to Okome Don, a courageous little cafe holding its own among noodle houses and big buffets.
With poke, you start with chopped raw fish – tuna, salmon, Mahi, etc. Mix with sesame oil, and spices. Serve with rice, seaweed, spring mix, or any combination of these. Top with kimchi, tamago, pickled ginger or seaweed salad. Then sprinkle some fried onions or sesame seed.
Poke restaurants are popping up like mushrooms after a rain, but this place reminds me of my first bite of poke.
We stopped to get gas at a station on the north shore of Oahu. We paid $3.50 for a scoop of poke and a scoop of rice in a Styrofoam cup, eating this working man’s staple at an outdoor table overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
At Okome Don, you’ll pay $10.50 for three scoops of poke, plus salad, rice, sauce, and a dozen toppings. Soup is included. That works out to about the same cost per scoop as our Hawaiian intro to the dish.
My favorite bakery: Parisian Bakery and Cafe
Vietnam was a French possession for sixty years. For that reason, you find some marvelous French pastries in Houston’s Chinatown.
At the Parisian Bakery, I followed my healthy poke meal with a flaky little eclair filled with vanilla cream.
If food is one of the ways you experience culture, I was off on a world tour. Find the Parisian right next to Okome Don at 9938 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036.
Update: Houston’s Chinatown requires several hours to really enjoy. If you only have lunch or dinnertime to spare, visit Peking Cuisine, at Gessner and 8332 Southwest Freeway.
While not in Chinatown, two Chinese friends took us there to explore the authentic foods of their homeland
Our usuals are Peking Duck, Liangfen (cold, clear gelatinous noodles in a spicy Chile sauce), Mu Shu pork and duck soup made with left-over bits from the Peking dish.
When our Chinese friends moved on, they left us the picture below to hand to the waiter as our order.
2. Fresh Fruits, Veggies and Exotic Groceries – Hong Kong City Mall
One one of my visits, a friend from Austin wanted to stock up on goodies from the grocery store at the Hong Kong City Mall at 11205 Bellaire Boulevard. I’d taken her there a few years ago and she fell in love with the strong 3-in-1 instant coffee sold at the market.
My first visit to the Hong Kong City Mall market was after a Leisure Learning event at the nearby Ocean Palace. One of the people we met was a NASA employee named Bill Spenny who had traveled extensively in different countries.
After dinner, our new friend escorted some of us over to the Hong Kong City Mall and acted as interpreter and guide.
We needed one.
Walking through the produce section, I saw more unknown than recognizable items. He warned us about durian fruit which was so smelly, it was banned from flights.
In later visits the Hong Kong City Mall, I’ve always found someone eager to explain some oddity I stumbled upon.
Last time it was an Indian couple who encouraged us to buy some strange but delicious fruit. This time it was a young Vietnamese man who saw us looking at a lemon pepper sauce.
He told us that sauce was a favorite with fish in his country. I used it with trout tacos that night and he was right.
My favorite Hong Kong City Mall Finds
For ramen fans, there were two long aisles of the crunchy noodles, in flavors beyond the usual beef, chicken, and shrimp. Try sparerib or lobster, tom yum shrimp – Phnom Penh style.
Pictures on the wrappers showed serving suggestions with hard boiled eggs and something fried on the top. We found a jar of fried garlic crumbles – like the fried onions that top that Thanksgiving stalwart, the green bean casserole.
But compared to that garlic, fried onions were so tame
Another couple of aisles were filled with coffee of every type including the sugar/milk/coffee instant mixture my Austin friend was jonesing for. Hot, sweet and strong as a mule.
We’d only gotten through about a fourth of the store before being overwhelmed and ready to go.
I had promised myself I would only buy some jicama and ramen. Already my little cart was packed with those items plus the garlic crumbles, dried shitake mushrooms, a Korean melon, and the lemon hot sauce.
Plus my absolute favorite discovery – Natilla custard mix.
Years ago, at a restaurant in a small town outside of Albuquerque New Mexico, I first tasted this barely sweet Spanish version of flan. I had searched for this dessert for years.
How strange to find it at the Hong Kong City Mall. But that is the kind of place it is.
3. Non-Naked Pampering of Reflexology
Houston’s Chinatown is ground zero for reflexology in Texas.
If you think reflexology is just a foot massage, you are missing one of the best deals in Houston. It’s more akin to full body massage, except you can wear shorts or exercise clothes instead of stripping down.
With an hour-long session for $30 at Kings Spa, 12000 Bellaire Boulevard, the practitioner makes you comfortable in a giant recliner while your feet soak in warm water.
For twenty minutes your arms, hands, face, scalp, ears, and stomach get massaged, pummeled and stroked.
Then your feet are dried and gently manipulated for another twenty minutes, paying special attention to each little piggy.
Finally, the recliner flattens out and your legs, back, neck, and buttocks get some attention for the remaining part of the hour.
You’ve reached the end when you practitioner rhythmically slaps your back, making a popping noise against the soft blanket draped across your back.
My perfect Houston Chinatown day
If I was going to plan the perfect day in Chinatown, I’d to the following:
- 11:30a – Early lunch at Okome Don for a healthy meal of fresh fish and veggies. ( pick up a pastry at Parisian for later)
- 1:30p – Reflexology at Kings Spa – splurge on 1 ½ hour package – $45 plus 20% tip
- 3:30p – To get functioning after this glorious interlude, head to Hong Kong City Mall and buy a bubble tea from one of its many tea shops. Find a bench and marvel the diversity of the other shoppers.
- 5:00p – Then go into the grocery store at the Hong Kong City Mall and start exploring. Take a big cart. Look confused and someone will be sure to introduce you to a new kind of fruit, vegetable, sauce or entrée.
Far-East Vibe just off the Beltway
On our last visit, we felt like we were somewhere on the Spice Road. Families and couples in all kinds of outfits. A Buddhist monk in saffron robes. Stylish Asian women who looked like models. We added our own bit of sand in jeans and t-shirts.
Houston just keeps getting bigger and more spread out which is exhausting.
But as it grows, it also reflects Houston’s mixed-up, wonderful amalgamation of cultures. Exotic, exhilarating and something to very proud of.
And a great way to be a tourist in our own town.
What have you discovered as a tourist in your own town?
Image by Andrea Nguyen via Flickr
(CC by 2.0)