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Taste: Uncovering Houston's Chinatown

Written by Jane Wu.

Classic dim sum from Ocean Palace restaurant. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

If the essence of a culture can be discovered through its food, no ethnic cuisine fits this notion better than Chinese. The consummate guide to all flavors Chinese—at least in Texas—is Dorothy Huang, who has hosted food tours of Houston’s Chinatown, along with her legendary cooking classes, for more than 35 years.

Chinatown, an eight-mile section along Bellaire Boulevard between US 59 and Texas 6, originated downtown in the early 20th Century as a tiny, three-block section with a few restaurants, grocery stores and curio shops. The area later migrated to the southwest suburbs. These days, businesses from acupuncture clinics to video stores add to the mix, with Hong Kong City Mall as the flagship. The restaurants have multiplied, and small grocery stores are now supermarkets. In addition, the population has expanded to include more Asian cultures, especially Vietnamese, who now outnumber Chinese-Americans here. 

Recipe: Pot-stickers

See related: The World of Dorothy Huang

Born in Canton, China, and raised in Taiwan, Huang came to Houston with her husband in the late ’60s, when the city’s Asian population was small but growing. Trained as a nutritionist, Huang worked for a year as a hospital dietitian.
Instructors with the University of Houston’s adult-education program convinced her to teach Chinese cooking, which quickly caught on with Houstonians hungry for more diverse culinary experiences. At the urging of her students, Huang started her first Chinatown tour in 1974, in “old Chinatown” downtown. The tour moved to Hong Kong City Mall on Bellaire Boulevard after the center opened in 1998. Ten years later, Huang expanded her tour-guide expertise to Austin’s Chinatown Center, where I took in a tour last fall.

The Houston tour meets on a Saturday at Ocean Palace restaurant (adjacent to the mall) for dim sum, the traditional Cantonese weekend brunch. Dim sum, which literally translates as “touch the heart,” consists of an assortment of mostly steamed dumplings or fried pastries, generally filled with pork, chicken, or shrimp and is served with hot tea.

Huang orders for us, selecting typical favorites like har gow (shrimp dumpling) and char sui bao (pork bun), and lesser-known items such as stuffed fried eggplant with shrimp, and sticky rice-and-sausage wrapped in lotus leaves—sometimes referred to as a “Chinese tamale.” We sit at two round tables, and Huang holds court at both, carefully describing the ingredients of each dim sum item as it is served, explaining how it was prepared.

After an hour of noshing and socializing, we go into the bustling mall, and to Hong Kong Food Market. We stroll by shops and kiosks selling women’s fashions, electronic gadgets, toys, and jewelry, interspersed with Vietnamese sandwich cafés, noodle shops, and bubble tea emporiums.

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