In 2016, Chinese New Year falls on February 8, kicking off the lunar year of the monkey. For the bright, magnetic individuals born in a previous ape year (we’re looking at you, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992 and 2004 babies!) the next 12 months look auspicious indeed. But the rest of us are still lucky—after all, we get to live and eat in Houston, a city with Chinese food offerings literally all over the map.
China has 34 provinces and 55 ethnic minority groups, each with a cuisine of its own, from the Muslim Uighurs and their lamb-heavy Xinjiang cuisine in the extreme northwest of the 3.7-million-square-mile country to the seafood-heavy meals found in the southeastern Guangdong Province. And increasingly in Houston, Chinese restaurants—in booming Chinatown and elsewhere—specialize in regional flavors. In other words, in our city, it makes less and less sense to say you’re going out for Chinese. Are you having Chinese barbecue? Dim sum? Whatever you’re craving, chances are it’s not the General Tso’s chicken and crab Rangoon of eras past.
Below is our handy guide to a delicious new year. Hold the fortune cookies.
Region 1: Xinjiang
Dish: Lamb skewers, grilled over charcoal and crusted in cumin, fennel and chile powder. For vegetarians, a tangle of enoki mushrooms is seasoned the same way and tastes almost as meaty.
What else should I try? The dapanji, better known in English as big-plate chicken. You’ll need a friend to help make a dent in the spicy chicken stew with noodles.
9260 Bellaire Blvd., 713-773-9999
Region 2: Sichuan
Dish: Water-boiled beef might sound bland, but believe the three-chile warning on the menu. “Water” just means that the meat is poached, rendering it ultra-tender.
What else should I try? Chonqing spicy-and-crispy chicken; imagine your favorite popcorn chicken, made with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
Chuan's Chinese Restaurant, 5901 Westheimer Rd.
Region 3: Beijing
Dish: The restaurant’s name should clue you in: This is the place for Peking duck. Crisp-skinned, tender slices come ready to be wrapped in pancakes with hoisin sauce and scallions, and duck soup arrives with both legs bobbing in the broth.
What else should I try? For variety’s sake, add some more wraps to the table. Labeled on the menu as “Chinese tortillas,” the six offerings include stir-fried sour cabbage and shredded pork with fried bean curd.
Peking Cuisine Chinese Restaurant, 8332 Southwest Fwy.
Region 4: Shanghai
Dish: The xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, are exceptionally delicate here. Expect dark, meaty broth to burst from within the thin skin at first bite.
What else should I try? Shanghainese cuisine is on the sweet side, extra-pleasing to the American palate. Start with cold appetizers, including smoked fish and chicken in Shaoxing wine and ginger.
One Dragon Restaurant, 9310 Bellaire Blvd.
Region 5: Guangdong
Dish: Dim sum, of course. The ha gao and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf are also standouts. Or go for the old standard: fluffy cha siu bao, or buns stuffed with sweet red pork.
What else should I try? Hard-to-find foil-wrapped chicken—ginger-spiced meat fried in foil packets—is crave-worthy.
Dim Sum King, 9160 Bellaire Blvd.