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Deep in the jungle (of Houston Chinatown)

IMG_0301I spent most of my weekend hanging out with a certain special lady, who’s recovering from  surgery, leaving the house only to get food. The Bellaire Chinatown is only a short drive from my neighborhood, so that’s where I typically end up when I don’t have to contend with friends who don’t consider trying random restaurants a competitive sport.

My lunch destination on Friday was Sichuan Cuisine, located in the Diho Square. Sichuan Cuisine has long been one of my favorite restaurants in Houston, but I never really bothered to try anything else in the Diho Square, other than Bodard Bistro and Tan Tan across the street.

On Saturday, I ended up back at Diho Square at Shanghai Restaurant, which turned out to be right next door to Sichuan. I am not the biggest fan of Cantonese food, so Shanghai Restaurant (quite a bit of the menu seems Cantonese to me, despite the name) didn’t really rock my world. The salted fish and chicken fried rice was quite good, however, so maybe it’s worth exploring the menu further.

The food at Pine Forest Garden Vegetarian Restaurant was equally bland, but had the most bewildering collection of oddball vegetarian dishes I have seen yet. Have a craving for wheat gluten imitation pork kidneys or a faux squid? They have it. How about vegetarian duck or shark fin fashioned out of seaweed? Goose? It’s all here. Wild stuff.

Wonderful/Tien Ren may have had better food and “quirkier” staff that seemed to dabble in the occult, but no one beats Pine Forest Garden Vegetarian Restaurant as far as variety goes. Or in the bizarrely long name category.

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Without a doubt, the best discovery this weekend has to be Jungle Cafe & Patisserie, again, right next to Sichuan Cuisine. I must have passed it a dozen times, but never thought to look inside. If I had, I would have found French-style pastries inflected with pokemon graphics, the likes of which I have never seen in Chinatown before or anywhere else in Houston for that matter.

Since Friday I have put down something like 5 cakes (all in the name of science), not to mention a box of very faithful macarons, and they are all great. The dark chocolate number called Madagascar is my favorite so far, but there are a number of others I would gladly order again.

Not sure Pierre Herme should worry just yet, but he might have real competition should he decide to enter the Houston market (which might happen once the price of gas hits $12), considering Jungle Cafe is serving up some serious looking pastries out of a rather unassuming bubble tea shop on Bellaire.

The national media is beginning to warm up to Houston, but they are largely missing the point. The energy industry and cheap real estate is not what makes this city such a fascinating place. If you want to see the best of Houston, spend some time in the Bellaire Chinatown. It will absolutely blow your mind. Where else do you find  Sichuan duck tongues, sushi, banh mi, bubble tea, vegetarian pork kidneys and French pastries within steps of each other? Only in Houston.

Jungle Cafe on Urbanspoon

June 30, 2008   7 Comments