Anonymous Kid was playing in the street when I called, "Want to go get dumplings?"
She is a 9-year-old foodie, already too picky. "Where?" she asked skeptically.
She threw down her scooter and yelled, "Oh Yeah!"
She and I have learned this hard fact of life: Houston's best dumplings are in Chinatown, the stretch of Bellaire from US 59 to Beltway 8 and beyond. You might get fancy dumplings elsewhere. But if you want the basics, you go to Chinatown.
In most other neighborhoods, a Chinese restaurant can make a profit selling average dumplings. But in Chinatown, the competition is intense. The Asian-American customers know the product.
You've gotta make a mean dumpling to sell it in Chinatown.
Xiong Cafe is in the Sterling Shopping Center at 9888 Bellaire. It sells dumplings, noodles, and soups. Its sister restaurant next door is My Tea House. They are like 2 restaurants in 1. You can go to the back of Xiong and order a fruit juice or bubble tea from My Tea House through a service window.
Xiong followed a tough act. The day before, I had gone to the nearby Sandong Noodle House. Xiong feels different. It is bright and welcoming. Xiong's wait staff are young and cheery -- not hardened veterans of the dumpling wars, like at Sandong.
But on that afternoon, we weren't looking for atmosphere. We were looking for dumplings.
Not just any dumplings. The best dumplings.
A customer at the counter offered to help translate the Chinese menu on the wall. I saw an English menu on the counter. But I accepted his offer. He looked like a regular. He looked like he knew dumplings. I told him we wanted the two best dumplings on the menu.
"Do you want steamed, boiled, or pan fried?" "Do you want pork or chicken?" "Or do you want a variety plate." Apparently, Xiong had a lot of choices. I explained that it didn't matter. We are not casual dumpling eaters. We don't care about chicken vs. pork. "We only want the best. "
He looked me in the eye, and saw I meant it. This is what he suggested:
Szechuan Spicy Dumplings
Priced at $3.25, this bowl of 12 boiled dumplings is not a lot of dough. The skin is like a wonton, but a little thicker. It is wrapped around a ground pork filling and coated with ground nuts and green onion. Under the dumplings is a liquid that can't decide whether it is a soup or a sauce. I guess the liquid has some broth, vinegar, and chili paste. But mostly garlic. A lot of garlic.
The broth was more savory than spicy. There was some heat. And, if you need more heat, Xiong has a vat of chili paste in back. But I didn't need more heat. I was happy to just enjoy the garlicky, salty flavor.
Pan Fried Pork Dumplings
Xiong lays down the gauntlet by selling pan fried pork dumplings. You see, pan fried dumplings are the specialty at Sandong, where I had eaten the day before. Xiong threw a punch with its ground pork filling, slightly more flavorful than Sandong's. But in the texture competition, Xiong lost to Sandong. At Xiong, the dumplings had been left in the pan a few seconds too long without liquid. The crunchy side was a little too hard and toasty. The other two sides were not as moist and chewy as at Sandong. Plus, at $5.95, the pan fried dumplings at Xiong cost about a dollar more. That's not a lot of dough, but in these hard times, every buck counts.
"Forget it Jake."
My daughter and I had good times at Xiong. She loved her Boba Milk Tea. I dug the unusual Szechuan Spicy dumplings. I would recommend Xiong's pan fried dumpllings over 98% of the dumplings I have tried. And I might even rather go back to Xiong than Sandong.
But in a close pan-fried dumpling match, Sandong wins.
Competition on this strip of land is tough. It's the dumpling wars. Someone's gotta win. Someone's gotta lose. If you lose, you can't let it get to you.
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."