Here's the thing about Uyghur food: I've never met anyone who's tried it and doesn't love it. Here's the other thing: Not many people have tried it.
In New York City, most diners with any appetite for adventure have tried lamb skewers from one of the Xinjiang BBQ carts that dot the streets of Flushing's ever-expanding Chinatown. But for a more diverse taste of what China's northwestern-most region can cook up, even denizens of America's largest city have to hightail it to Brighton Beach. I mention this because Houston is exceptionally lucky to have two Xinjiang-style restaurants right in the heart of Chinatown. I included Xin Jiang BBQ in a story, Off the Map, in this month's issue of Houstonia as an exemplar of the charcoal-grilled meat for which the region is known best.
But right around the time I wrote that piece, Uyghur Bistro quietly opened on Bellaire Boulevard, just across the street from Dun Huang Plaza. Xin Jiang BBQ is fine and dandy for charred meats and veggies covered in a blizzard of chile powder and fennel. But the rest of its menu is largely from other regions of China. Uyghur Bistro is the real deal.
Those new to the cuisine should know a bit about Xinjiang. The region's location at the heart of the Silk Road has historically made it a clearinghouse of cultures from all over the world. Mummies found in the Tarim basin dating back as far as 1800 BCE wear tartans and have red or blonde hair. The oldest extant piece of cheese was found fastened around the neck of one of those departed bronze-age souls.
Modern Uyghurs are Muslim with the Eurasian features that are often typical of Central Asia. Like the people, the food takes cues from everywhere that has touched it, including China, Russia, India and the Middle East. And yes, they still make yogurt-based cheese much like the 3,800-year-old one. At Uyghur Bistro, there's no cheese, but there is housemade yogurt, listed among drinks, not so much because it's drinkable, but because it's a refreshing breather between dishes.
Usually, the lamb skewers are the barometer of quality at any Uyghur restaurant. And at Uyghur Bistro, they are very, very good. But they are also quite atypical. Usually, the meat sticks are just chunks of fatty lamb that melts with the spice mix showered on top. The server I spoke to at the restaurant admitted that the chef at Uyghur Bistro cooks it in his own style, with a vinegary marinade that reminded me of my father's Russian shashlik. The contrast with the spicy topping enlivened the meat in a way that was new and very welcome.
Perfectly cooked rice was the centerpiece of the Uyghur polo. Whether you call it plov, pilaf, pulao or polo, the rice dish is a hallmark of Central Asian cuisine. Uyghur Bistro's slightly sticky, intensely umami rice combined with meltingly tender lamb and carrots, was nearly impossible to stop eating, even knowing how much food I still had ahead of me.
Dapanji, usually identified in English as "big plate chicken," is important enough at Uyghur Bistro that it's pictured on the sign. My dining partner and I got a "small" plate that was not small at all, but managed to demolish the whole pile of tender chicken and peppers nonetheless. The dish would be wholly unfamiliar to the Tarim basin mummies. It's a fusion with Sichuan cuisine that didn't gain popularity until the 1990s. The numbing Sichuan peppercorn is a dead giveaway of that side of its heritage. The hand-pulled noodles, especially thin and slippery at Uyghur Bistro, are all Xinjiang.
It's not a Uyghur restaurant experience without goshnan. I had to ask our server which menu item was the telltale lamb pie: "Uyghur style pizza" or "Uyghur meat bread." Turns out, it's the former.
I've seen more attractively rolled edges on the flaky pastry, but what this version lacked in visual gifts, it made up for in a juicy filling of coarsely chopped lamb, peppers and scallions. The lamb pies are pan-fried resulting in something akin to a Chinese scallion pancake with a more substantial filling, but Uyghur Bistro's version is greasier than others I've tried.
Service was an issue when I visited Uyghur Bistro for a late Friday lunch. It took two hours to make our way through the dishes pictured above—a chunk of that time was just waiting for someone to take our order. This will likely resolve itself with time, and for a Xinjiang obsessive like myself, isn't enough of an obstacle to keep me away.
I just feel lucky to be able to geek out about one of my personal passions, now available so close to home. And it may get closer still. The server with whom I chatted said that Uyghur Bistro is already considering spaces for a second location in the loop.