Home to 23 provinces, five autonomous regions, two special administrative regions, and 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities (each with its own distinct culture and cuisine), the food of China is as distinct as it is diverse.
Fortunately for Houstonians, the city is packed with restaurants representing many of these culinary traditions. Here, dishes from regions from all over the map of the world’s most populous country are represented on menus at restaurants located in the city’s bustling Chinatown and beyond.
Looking for succulent Peking duck with shatteringly crisp skin? Or perhaps juicy, broth-filled soup dumplings from Shanghai? Use this as a guide to the must-try dishes from 14 regions in China that can be found at Houston restaurants.
Peking duck at Peking Cuisine
When most diners think of the cuisine of China’s capital city, its own municipality, one dish stands out: peking duck. Find an especially succulent (and crispy-skinned) iteration of this dish at Peking Cuisine, where a whole bird is served both on its own with skinny pancakes and in a veggie-packed soup for less than $35.
Peking Cuisine, 8332 Southwest Freeway, 713-988-5838
Chopped duck neck at Jing 5
Wang Songlin has been selling salty-and-sweet duck parts since he opened his first store in 1991 in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan. His chain in China is known as Jing Wu Duck Neck. This outpost, also pronounced Jing Wu, is one of nearly 200 locations treasured for its anise-and-orange-flavored segments of tender chopped duck neck. A container of spicy peanut-enhanced noodles makes for an ideal accompaniment.
Jing 5, 9354 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-574-2486
Sauerkraut stew at North East Restaurant
Surrounded by Russia and Korea, both countries lend influences to the hearty cuisine of Dongbei. At North East Restaurant, find a stick-to-the-ribs sauerkraut stew, a dish that’s especially comforting when paired with warm corn milk. The bolstering breads are especially worthy of a taste, particularly the fried flatbread served with slices of smoked pork.
North East Restaurant, 8400 Bellaire Blvd., 713-750-9222
Spicy hot pot with lamb dumplings, fish balls, and more at Little Sheep Hot Pot
Not surprisingly, this autonomous region owes many of its flavors to nearby Mongolia, not least its predilection for lamb. This multinational chain has locations in China, but also Japan, the U.S., and Canada. It’s easy to see why: The chain boasts one of the best assortments of hot pot ingredients around. From lamb dumplings to roe-filled fish balls, something fun is always boiling in the spicy tabletop soup.
Little Sheep Hot Pot, multiple locations
Jiagnan red-braised pork belly at Gangnam Style
Lore has it that many ancient emperors held this region as their favorite culinary destination. The comforting cuisine focuses on delicate flavors that run on the sweet side. Case in point: the Jiangnan red-braised pork. The cubes of melting belly strike a tender chord of home cooking, even for those who have never tried it before.
Gangnam Style, 9330 Bellaire Blvd., 281-501-9898
Shanghainese soup dumplings at One Dragon
The soup dumplings at One Dragon are rewardingly brothy, with a skin so thin, it’s hard to believe they don’t rupture with the touch of a chopstick. Not everything here is Shanghainese, but among the dishes that are, diners should make room for carbs: puffy pork bao with crispy bottoms and sticky rice sweetened with dried fruit and nuts are both worth the nap that will follow after.
One Dragon Restaurant, 9310 Bellaire Blvd., 713-995-6545
Ji pai at Tainan Bistro
“Bistro” may imply something more elegant than the vibe at Tainan, but when it comes to flavor, this cafeteria-style dive is spot on. It helps to be able to read hanzi to parse out the menu, but it’s not a mistake to walk right in and order the ji pai, marinated-and-fried chicken cutlets served with rice that’s buried in anise-flavored braised pork.
Tainan Bistro, 9306 Bellaire Blvd., 713-988-7275
Mapo tofu at Hu’s Cooking
It was illegal to import Sichuan peppercorn to the United States until 2005, so the numbing, floral burn of the ingredient is fairly new here. Though they serve more than just Sichuan food at this Rice Village destination, this is is one of the best places to glory in it. The uncommonly robust mapo tofu offers a steady burn, and the complex seafood hot pot unravels a fiery tingle that inspires cravings as fierce as the flavors themselves.
Hu’s Cooking, 2502 W. Holcombe Blvd., 713-660-0020
Big plate chicken at Xinjiang BBQ
With the recent closures of all three of Houston’s fully Uyghur (read: cuisine from the Muslim-influenced Xinjiang region) restaurants, there is a Xinjiang-shaped hole in the food scene. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean there’s nowhere to sample the cumin-scented specialties of China’s northwestern-most region. Spice-dusted lamb skewers recall outdoor barbecuing in the mountainous region, but the spicy big plate chicken with its fat, slippery noodles cannot be missed.
Xinjiang BBQ, 9260 Bellaire Blvd., 713-773-9999
Oil splash noodles at Niu Yi Zui Lamen
This region’s capital, Lanzhou, lends its name to one China’s most iconic noodle soups. But there’s no need to order beef noodles here. Cooks are at work behind a glass window, slapping and pulling dough into a range of sizes that spans from skinny to impossibly broad. Lightly spicy oil splash noodles topped with tender pork goes down especially well with a rou jia mo (meat sandwich) on the side.
Niu Yi Zui Lamen, 9968 Bellaire Boulevard, 281-501-9285
Intestines stuffed with sticky rice at China House
Hidden among the cheese puffs and General Tso on the menu lies hard-to-find Teochew cuisine, which is descended from umami-heavy Fujian and Cantonese traditions. Intestines stuffed with sticky rice and accompanied with pickled mustard greens may remind diners of the Louisiana sausage dish boudin, but green beans with Chinese olives, stewed tofu with pork intestines, and oyster-and-pork congee, taste like little else.
China House, 8797 South Gessner Drive, 713-779-6848
Barbecue pork at Siu Lap City
Cantonese cuisine, the food that inspired the majority of Americanized Chinese dishes, is easily the most common of China’s many flavors in the United States. But finding truly great Cantonese barbecue can be a challenge. We can’t think of anywhere better to get it than at this Midtown eatery, with lines attesting to its quality. The juicy pork with its crispy, salty skin is our favorite.
Siu Lap City, 2808 Milam Street, 713-236-8171
Cumin beef at Hunan Bistro
Sichuan gets all the attention for its spice, but heat seekers shouldn’t sleep on Hunan. Chiles fill the stir fries here, resulting in heat that easily competes with the more popular cuisine. Even calmer dishes, like sweet-and-tangy noodles with cabbage, have a hint of sizzle. For a real education in Hunan food’s complexity, though, try the aromatic, cilantro-woven cumin beef.
Hunan Bistro, 9889 Bellaire Boulevard, 832-991-8609
Fried fish, congee, and more at Hong Kong’s Cafe
One hundred-fifty years of occupation by the British has left clear marks on the cuisine of this autonomous territory. Of all the Hong Kong-style restaurants in Houston, this one harkens most unapologetically toward its Western colonial roots. There’s fried fish in a creamy corn sauce, hot dogs, and spaghetti Bolognese, but also Chinese barbecue, noodle soups and congee. Luckily, the low prices mean it’s not necessary to stick to just one dish.
Hong Kong’s Cafe, 9108 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-772-9633