The Essential Guide to Asiatown

Required Eating: 11 Restaurants in Asiatown You Can't Miss

From Cajun-Vietnamese crawfish to dim sum and Sichuan staples, these are our favorite places to eat.

By Mai Pham June 22, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Dim sum is served daily at Crown Seafood.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Asiatown, home to hundreds of restaurants, can seem quite daunting. Where to start? Where will you get the best experience, consistently, time and again? Which will be the spots that you will return to, and tell your friends about? These are just some of the criteria we considered when putting together this list of the restaurants to know if you want to be a card-carrying, culinarily enlightened Houstonian. 

Crown Seafood

This 11,000-square-foot, banquet-style Chinese seafood restaurant debuted in 2015 and soon became a mainstay for families and large parties, who come for the great atmosphere—complete with Vegas-style red-and-gold chairs and crystal chandeliers—as much as the excellent food. Pick from hundreds of regular menu items including classic Cantonese dishes like Peking duck and whole steamed fish. Better yet, walk to the back of the restaurant and choose lobster, geoduck, and other items from the live seafood tanks. Dim sum—served daily until 3 p.m. and selected via paper menu, not carts—is top-notch. Steamed har gow and shu mai dumplings and hard-to-find shrimp-wrapped crab claws easily rank among the finest in the city. 

Chef Wu prepares numbingly spicy dishes at Mala Sichuan.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Mala Sichuan Bistro

Jianyun Ye, a 2017 James Beard finalist for Best Chef Southwest, has moved on, but the place is now in the capable hands of Chef Rong Wu. The original, on Bellaire Boulevard—there’s a Montrose location, too—remains in a class of its own for its numbingly spicy, bracingly authentic takes on Sichuan staples like mapo tofu, dan dan noodles, red-oil wontons, and water-boiled fish. For the best experience, bring a group of friends, get a round table with a Lazy Susan, and order whatever sounds appealing. Lotus Root Mouth Watering Chicken and Eight Treasure Sweet Sand are just a couple of the delicious dishes that are waiting to be discovered. 

Saigon Pagolac

Houston’s first restaurant to specialize in bo 7 mon—beef seven ways—is the place to go when you want to experience an all-beef Vietnamese tasting menu. Ringing in at just $16.95 per person, a steal for seven courses, the feast includes bo nhung dam (beef dipped in hot vinegar), bo cuon mo chai (beef grilled with caul fat), bo la lot (beef wrapped in betel leaves), bo cha dum (beef meatballs), bo sate (grilled beef satay-style), bo bit tet (beef salad), and a belly-warming bowl of chao bo (beef porridge). You’ll need to get your hands a little dirty, as several dishes are meant to be wrapped in rice paper at the table. The experience engages all the senses, especially when you add an ice-cold beer. 

Thien Thanh

For the better part of the past three decades, this family-run restaurant—recognized by Travel + Leisure magazine as the top H-Town spot for eating like a local—has served the city’s best version of banh cuon, the Northern Vietnamese dish of glutinous rice-flour rolls. Long a mainstay among local families, Thien Thanh is especially popular as a weekend brunch spot, when they gather to enjoy the signature banh cuon nhan thit (rice rolls stuffed with minced pork), banh uot thit nuong (rice rolls stuffed with grilled pork), bun rieu (tomato-and-crab vermicelli soup), and cha ca (turmeric fish with dill). 

Crawfish & Noodles

Featured on everything from The Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods to Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, this is your destination for the wonderful genre of cuisine we now call Viet-Cajun, prepared by chef/owner Trong Nguyen, a 2018 James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef Southwest. On the Vietnamese side, you’ve got unforgettable salt-and-pepper blue crabs, tossed with red and green bell peppers and crusted with finger-licking sweet-and-salty flavor; an excellent com chien bo luc lac (shaking beef and rice); and memorable dishes like the chewy hu tieu tapioca noodles. The Cajun side, meanwhile, turns out Gulf oysters, fried seafood platters, a killer turkey neck, and, of course, the restaurant’s signature garlic-butter crawfish.

Tiger Den

Trendy, tight, and always buzzing, this dinner-only spot continues to dominate the Houston ramen scene with authentic, Hakata-style ramen and a tasty selection of robata-grilled items like yakitori chicken, beef tongue, and whole squid. The house-made noodles give the restaurant an edge, as does the rich, slow-cooked tonkotsu pork broth. You might have a bit of a wait before being seated, and you might end up at the communal table, but that’s part of the fun. Also fun? The noises you get to make as you slurp every last drop from your bowl. 

The pho at Pho Dien is something special.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Pho Dien

Just one sip of the secret-recipe pho broth—made of beef and bone simmered for 12 hours to yield a rich, full-bodied, yet delicately aromatic soup—and it’s clear that this is something special. Combine the broth with tender slices of tasty, marinated filet mignon (tai uop) and other high-quality meat toppings, and you’ve got a winner, widely considered one of the best, if not the best, bowls of pho in town. Order the dac biet (special) with rare filet mignon on the side for the full experience. 

Mein Restaurant

Channeling a modern-day Chinese teahouse with its stylish design and fabulous hand-painted murals, this restaurant offers a menu of “everyday food” including Hong Kong–style wonton noodle soup, house-made charsiu pork, and outstanding hand-pulled chicken, olive leaf–fried rice, and sansai egg tofu. Great for groups and solo diners, it offers a menu so large, you could come back several times a week and not have the same thing. There’s also wine, beer, and Italian Lavazza coffee, plus an Instagram-worthy lava toast, so save room for dessert. 

One Dragon Restaurant

A modest hole-in-the-wall with just a handful of tables, this mom-and-pop restaurant is the go-to spot for undeniably delicious xiao long bao soup dumplings and home-style Shanghai cuisine. The staff speaks limited English, and there’s often a wait during peak hours, but the made-to-order delicacies, which come six to an order, are the city’s best-in-class example of this hard-to-find treat. 

Tony Thai

The handsome decor at this spot tucked into a corner of Saigon Houston Plaza—think granite tabletops, pendant lighting, and striking brass sitting Buddha sculptures—immediately makes a positive impression. Once you sit down, though, it’s the food that grabs you. The place is owned by Ede Srianong Vong and Tony Andoune Srivoraku, but she’s the kitchen master, turning out beautiful dishes of sour-and-spicy tom yum kung, richly flavored curries, fantastic whole fried fish, and, of course, an excellent pad Thai. A picture menu makes ordering a snap, and the all-Thai waitstaff provide friendly, competent hospitality. 

Fung’s Kitchen

Though it technically resides outside of Asiatown, off the Southbound 59 feeder just past Bellaire Boulevard, this is the OG when it comes to authentic, Hong Kong–style Cantonese food, serving generations of Houstonians for close to three decades. Fresh, deftly prepared dishes include the award-winning, crispy-skinned Peking Duck, nine excellent styles of lobster, and the exemplary beef chow mein. The weekend dim sum scene is an experience in itself, when the 1,000-seat dining room fills with diners choosing from more than 100 dim sum plates. 

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