Ben Berg, the restaurateur behind Berg Hospitality, has brought Houston nearly a dozen restaurants — some of which are deeply embedded in the local dining scene. There’s B&B Butchers for those seeking steak; the Annie Cafe and Bar, which serves an Instagrammable brunch with rooftop views; Emilia’s Havana, a late-night spot with bustling live entertainment and Cuban influences; B.B. Italia and Trattoria Sofia for pizzas and pasta, and now, the New York native is venturing into Chinese cuisine.
Benny Chows, a swanky “New York-style” Cantonese restaurant that incorporates elements of Texas cuisine, opened Wednesday, June 28, on Washington Avenue, according to a release. Berg tells Eater Houston the inspiration for the restaurant is fueled by his personal experiences growing up in New York City, where, Berg says, street hot dogs, pizza, and Chinese food are sources of comfort, and it was common for his family celebrations to be hosted at fancier Chinese restaurants in the area. However, the restaurant’s branding has drawn criticism from members of Houston’s AAPI community, who told the Chron earlier this year that the establishment’s faux Chinese name and marketing — initially presented as “elevated” Chinese food — seemed problematic. Some expressed concerns that its marketing was dismissive of Houston’s existing Chinese and Chinese American food scene.
Recent Benny Chows marketing materials have since abandoned the term “elevated,” though the name remains. “We build restaurants for everyone. I obviously don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” Berg says, adding that the name is “a play on words — with chow, as in my food” and also a nod to the famous location of Mr. Chow in New York.
While Berg, who is white, gave his nickname to the restaurant, Chinese-born executive chef Shirong Mei will preside over the kitchen, bringing with him nearly 30 years of experience at Cantonese restaurants throughout Asia and the U.S. The menu features 55 items that include dim sum and dumplings. The restaurant also lends Texas touches to some dishes: Truth BBQ’s brisket makes it into the smoked brisket egg rolls and the Holy Trinity fried rice pays homage to Hill Country barbecue culture with a combination of Brenham- and Houston-smoked brisket, Chinese sausage, and char siu made in-house. General Tso’s, an American Chinese staple, will also be re-interpreted as a tempura-fried half-chicken, as will the mapo tofu, which the restaurant makes with Impossible meat.
Diners can find whole lobster, foie gras, white sturgeon caviar, and seafood-loaded XO fried rice on the menu. Benny Chows will also offer its spin on Beijing duck — a 7-pound Jurgielewicz duck that’s prepared over three days.
The bar offers eight tea-infused cocktails — seven of which are named after the New York Chinese restaurants Berg grew up on. Some of the menu points to Houston restaurant history, too: The Mamma’s China Garden cocktail is a nod to Marian “Mamma” Jue, the late owner of Houston’s China Garden. Most intriguing, and also an outlier on the menu, is Mr. K’s Scorpion: Meant to be shared, the tropical drink is served in a large crystal decanter and garnished with scorpion lollipops.
Berg says the design process has been the most layered of his restaurants to date in an attempt to replicate a New York-style Cantonese restaurant. Sam Governale, Berg’s vice president of design and experience, teamed up with Gail McCleese of the firm Sensitori to incorporate Chinese decor and antiques into the restaurant’s design, some of which date back to 200 CE, Berg says. The overall effect is a kitschy, amorphously mid-century American Chinese aesthetic, with hand-painted wallpaper depicting “Chinese landscapes” and sculptures of Foo Dogs, Chinese guard lions that are often a popular feng shui symbol of protection, standing in the entrance. A “moon wall” leads to a horseshoe-shaped bar with Lazy Susan towers holding bottles of spirits, including Japanese whiskey.
With Houston brimming with Asian-owned restaurants, particularly in places like Asiatown in the Bellaire area and Katy Asia Town, it remains to be seen how Benny Chows will contribute to the greater dining community. But Berg believes the New York-style Cantonese restaurant will resonate.
“This is something I’m excited about,” says Berg, adding that the restaurant has been his passion project for two years. “It comes from a good place.”
Benny Chows is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.