Monday, December 12, 2011

Fantastic Chinese Food--In Houston, Texas

If the Chandavkl family has an ancestral homeland, it would be Houston, Texas. How the family got to Houston is somewhat of an unusual story. The Chandavkl family settled in San Francisco some 110 years ago, then moved to Los Angeles perhaps 20 years later. The first American born member, Uncle Edward, worked in the Federal court in Los Angeles as an interpreter. With the enactment of federal laws severely restricting immigration from China to the United States, deportation hearings requiring interpreters fluent both in English and Toishanese were not uncommon. At one such trial an event occurred which altered the course of the family's history. The accused defendant was determined to have illegally entered the United States and was ordered deported. The defendant's family and associates blamed Uncle Edward for incorrect translations that led to the deportation order, and put a bounty on Uncle Edward's head. Uncle Edward had to flee for his life, as far from Los Angeles as he could get.

Uncle Edward ended up in New York City, which was almost as far from Los Angeles as one could go. In New York he latched on with the Chinese Consul General and became his right hand man. Then, the Counsel General was transferred to a new consular office in Galveston, Texas, which was subsequently moved to Houston. This was in the middle of the Great Depression, and after having established himself in Houston, the rest of the family joined him there in 1935. During the 1940s and again in the 1960s, some of the family relocated back in Los Angeles.

I had made numerous trips to Houston over the years for various family gatherings, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. While Houston had the largest Chinese population of any of the Texas cities, and hence there was some authentic Chinese food there, it really couldn't compare to what you could get in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Sadly, the old timers died off and it's been almost 20 years since the last major family gathering in Houston. Indeed, since that last gathering I've only been to Houston twice, on side visits to business trips to Dallas (in 2003) and San Antonio, just a few weeks ago.

Consequently, you can imagine my surprise during this trip to Houston to find Chinese food as good as in the San Gabriel Valley. Even in 2003, while the Chinese food in Houston was decently good, there was no hint that it would make any kind of leap forward. Equally surprising was the availability of dishes in Houston (either the Bellaire Blvd. Chinatown or Sugar Land) that have only recently been introduced in the Los Angeles area, or in some cases not available at all here in Los Angeles. Beijing style beef hockey pucks (Niu Rou Xian Bing) which have just recently made an appearance in Los Angeles? Go to Xiong's Cafe on Bellaire Blvd. Great hand pulled noodles? Try Classic Kitchen in the same shopping center. Pan fried beef dumplings with onions? Golden Dumpling House in the same shopping center. Tomato in fish sauce--not sweet and sour? Arco Seafood in the same shopping center. Fantastic beef shiu mai (hardly if ever seen in Los Angeles these days)? At Hong Kong Dim Sum across the street. Taro rolls like you get at 85°C in Irvine? Go to Six Ping on Bellaire. Large scallop fish roe rice noodle rolls and egg tofu rice noodle rolls? You can get them at Jade Garden in Sugar Land, but not in Los Angeles. Supermarket deli selling Taiwanese chicken rolls? Go to Wel Farm market in Sugar Land. Certainly Houston doesn't have the breadth or depth of Chinese food that is available in Los Angeles, but any of these Houston restaurants would survive quite well if operating in the San Gabriel Valley.

The increase in the quality of Chinese food in Houston in the eight years since my previous visit was wholly unexpected. This result was probably magnified by the fact that I only ate at restaurants that had opened up after my 2003 visit to Houston so everything I ate was on the cutting edge. Before this year's visit to Houston I was viewing the trip as one last visit to the ancestral homeland. However it seems to me that I'll continue to go back to check out the food whenever I get the chance.