Combining devotion to age-old culinary style with fun new ideas — how about an artisan cocktail with your spicy crispy tofu? — several new Chinese joints are scoring in Montrose and the Heights. By Dennis Abrams, Photos by Julie Soefer
No less a purveyor of the country’s style and culture than The Wall Street Journal just weeks ago referenced a major shift in national culinary tastes. “Chinese food is evolving in America, as China opens itself to the world and U.S. diners grow ever more obsessed with and knowledgeable about what we’re eating,” reported Jamie Felmar in October. “A bevy of new restaurants … present personal takes on Chinese food, revealing the depth and diversity of one of the world’s most complex cuisines.”’
The artfully assessed trend is very much at play in Houston, it seems, as two wickedly talented chef-entrepreneurs have opened hip, authentic restaurants foodies are going gaga over. The still-new Montrose smash Cooking Girl (315 Fairview St., 832.649.7175) and the even newer Heights-area Ginger and Fork (4705 Inker St., 713.861.8883) are both fun and accessible, but each has its own very unique identity and take on the cuisine. Of course, all this follows the triumphant expansion of Mala Sichuan Bistro from Bellaire’s Asian district to Montrose, which the Journal actually called out as part of the new wave of Chinese restaurants in America.
Ginger and Fork is the brainchild of Mary Yi, who, with more than 20 years of experience behind the bar at Tony Mandola’s, earned a reputation as one of Houston’s most innovative bartenders. But her culinary experience goes well beyond mastery of the cocktail. Yi grew up in restaurants, working both sides of the house, and she uses that experience to bring the food she grew up on in Hong Kong, as well as her taste for exotic cocktails, to crowds of appreciative Houstonians.
Located in the former home of La Fisheria, off I-10 near the Heights, Ginger and Fork — named by Yi’s daughter to reflect the restaurant’s “East meets West” sensibility — has the feel of dining in someone’s home — specifically, the home of someone with comfortable yet refined tastes. Which seems all too appropriate, given the sense of comfortable refinement found in the restaurant’s menu.
And given that craft cocktails get equal billing with the food, what better way to begin a meal than with one of Yi’s signature drinks, appropriately served in antique cocktail glasses reminiscent of Chicago speakeasies. Start with Yi’s favorite, the ginger margarita, made with El Tesoro Platinum Tequila, Cointreau, Canton Ginger Liqueur, fresh lime juice, and — this is what kicks way over the top — fresh ginger juice, which Yi makes daily.
Or, if not that, why not sample the Dragon Fire, a tempting mix of Tanqueray Rangpur Gin, ancho-chili liqueur, Bad Dog Fire & Damnation bitters, fresh lemon juice, and freshly muddled dragon fruit. Can’t decide? Yi will be happy to serve your drinks in half-size glasses, so you can taste a few.
Unsurprisingly, the food pairs beautifully with any of her signature drinks as well as her well thorough list of wines. For appetizers, you can’t go wrong with the spicy crispy tofu cubes, tossed with salt and chilis, and either (or both) the Char Siu pork sliders — luscious Cantonese barbecue pork with hoisin — or the Peking duck bao. And, to refresh your palate before the main event, maybe the cold, crispy chile cabbage?
Entrees include the house specials of stir-fried lobster with ginger and onion, and, a dish one doesn’t often see around town, the bone brittle flounder: delicately stir-fried whole flounder, flesh removed from the bones. It’s served heaped on the fish’s frame, the fine bones crispy and delicate.
And unlike many other restaurants offering an authentic Chinatown experience, the desserts are well worth your while, especially the ginger parfait, which takes full advantage of that housemade ginger juice.
Ginger and Fork features Cantonese cuisine, known for its subtlety and use of fresh ingredients. Meanwhile, Cooking Girl, owned and operated by sisters Lily Luo and Yunan Yang, touts a menu bursting with the not-so-subtle Sichuan flavors of the sisters’ hometown of Chongqing.
The restaurant itself has a comfortable Chinatown-meets-Montrose feel, housed in a quaint building on Fairview and Taft. No cocktails here — it’s BYOB, which the buzzing crowd of neighborhood cool kids seems to love. But looking around the restaurant and seeing the large numbers of Asians from near and far also dining here, one quickly realizes that at Cooking Girl, it’s all about the food.
And truly excellent food it is. Bold and spicy without being overly “hot,” each bite of each dish is a revelatory demonstration of the wide range of favors that Sichuan cuisine is capable of, leaving your taste buds tired and happy — along with slightly numb thanks to the famous haunting residual heat of Sichuan peppers.
What to have? The soft rich fattiness of the “TMD Soft Bacon” — thick, sweet, spicy slices of which sit on a bed of crispy pickled vegetables — is a perfect palate wake-up call. The “Super Cubic (Hot Hot Fried Beef Cubes)” is actually small cubes of beef tendon, slightly chewy and exploding with heat, the flavor of the wok and the tongue-numbing slightly menthol flavor of Sichuan peppercorns. It was a universal favorite, as was the “Pepper Twins” chicken, tender juicy chunks cooked with peppers and fres nine-leaf peppercorns, proof positive that great Sichuan cuisine offers diners more than one way of being spicy.
Seafood lovers will very much enjoy the “Volcano:” perfectly steamed pieces of cod, red peppers, a broth that strikes just the right notes of salt and spice, all atop of rice noodles. If your tongue needs a respite from the flavor explosion offered by so many of the dishes, the cold salad of beef slices and ox tongue (yes, ox tongue), known as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is refreshing, although, admittedly, still fairly spicy — it is a Sichuan restaurant after all.
The eager crowds at both restaurants are evidence that the desire of foodies to experience true Chinese food is real. So real, in fact, that both are expanding: Ginger and Fork now offers Sunday dim sum brunch, while the cooking girls have opened a second restaurant, Pepper Twins (1915 W. Gray St., 346.204.5644), offering diners all-organic produce and meat, in what they describe as “country-style organic Chinese.”
Great Cantonese food. Great Sichuan food. As Chinese cuisine becomes mainstream, diners who were once satisfied with the standard egg rolls and lo mein are now demanding authenticity. And they’re eating and enjoying the real thing — all right here in Houston.