One sure testament to the quality of a restaurant is the enduring loyalty of its patrons. Case in point, Cafe Chino, which changed locations after a twenty-year stint in Rice Village and not only retained its original customer base but also attracted more devotees to its new home on the Southwest Freeway. While there is no shortage of Asian restaurants in Houston, Cafe Chino has secured a unique niche in the culinary landscape thanks to its singular Hunan-style and Indo-European dishes.
Start your meal with one of the Cafe’s signature appetizers, like the five spiced crispy quail, whose savory skin delightfully crackles as you bite into the juicy interior. Contrast the crunch of the quail with an order of the supple shumai dumplings stuffed with nuggets of shrimp and chicken. In keeping with its focus on superior seafood dishes, Cafe Chino also offers its own rendition of a crab cake starter that showcases notes of ginger and scallions.
Mongolian Vegetable Red Rice
When dining at Cafe Chino in late spring and early summer, you absolutely must try the soft-shell crabs battered in a sweet, tongue-tingling tomato chili sauce. The unctuous Asian BBQ baby back ribs, liberally swathed in a garlic sauce, will stick to your ribs, and while plated in elegant fashion, need not be eaten with utensils. (Re: Don’t hesitate to rip that porcine flesh from the bone and get sauce all over your fingers.) And speaking of another terrific dish at Cafe Chino best consumed with your hands, the Chinatown duck is served with thin pancakes and a thick plum sauce so that you can make your own wraps. The perfect carbohydrate pairing to these aforementioned hearty proteins is the Mongolian vegetable red rice, which differs from standard paler varieties via its slightly nutty flavor and rougher grains.
At many Asian restaurants, dessert is a write-off; not so at Cafe Chino where the last course continues to exemplify the restaurant’s commitment to Occidental-Oriental innovations. Classic French crème brûlée, for example, is infused with spicy ginger, and American bread pudding rendered extra decadent as well as tart with the use of croissants and blueberries. These painstakingly prepared dishes are the final flourish to already impressive meal.
The success of Cafe Chino is also due to its leadership, specifically owners and executive chef May and Eddie Chan whose efforts have garnered the numerous accolades. In 2003, May Chan was named Best Chef of the Year by H-Texas magazine and in 2004, David Rosengarten of the New York Times named Cafe Chino The Best Hunan Restaurant in the United States. It is unsurprising the Chans are flanked by an equally competent house staff that shows attention to detail and the willingness and ability to educate the unknowing diner about the finer points of the entree options. And while the refined menu, formal service, and white tablecloths might signal pretension in other environments, dining at Cafe Chino is nevertheless a relaxed affair.