Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fung's Kitchen

New York's Chinatown is justly famous for its dim sum palaces, places like Mandarin Court and 20 Mott Street whose combination of hostile service and rolling carts filled with dazzling delicacies prompts even hungover hipsters to rouse themselves early on Saturday mornings and make the trek to Mott and Canal. One of the things that makes New York's restaurant scene so vital is the city's hugely diverse population. Rather than having, for example, just enough Chinese residents to support a few Chinese restaurants, New York has an enormous population of Chinese from all regions of that country, and they help to maintain several competitive and vibrant eating districts, most notably on the Lower East Side and in Flushing. So when you go into a good Chinese restaurant in New York, you can -- and should -- find a sizeable proportion of knowledgeable Chinese patrons eating there.

Our hometown, Houston, is also amazingly diverse; by population, it is the second-most diverse city in the country, after NYC. Fittingly, Houston also has a vibrant, if typically far-flung, dim sum scene. Ocean Palace and Kim Son have attaracted huge weekend crowds for years with their rolling carts of dumplings, chicken feet, gai lan, and other specialties. For a long time, I was convinced that Kim Son's Stafford restaurant had the best weekend dim sum. Led by a brilliant dim sum chef, Kim Son -- a Houston Vietnamese standby -- still has an outstanding service, but Kim Son has now fallen, in my hierarchy, to a worthy second place. Fung's Kitchen is number one.

Fung's, located near Bellaire Boulevard just off the Southwest Freeway, is located with the usual Houston charm between a grim collection of office towers and ten lanes of highway traffic. Inside, however, Fung's is bright, clean, and nicely decorated (a significant departure from many New York dim sum palaces, which tend toward the "gritty reality" school of decor) with decorative Buddhas and functional fishtanks.

The fishtanks are critical, in fact. Although nearly everything on the dim sum carts is delicious, the seafood takes pride of place. Shrimp dumplings (there are at least three kinds) are pristine and crunchy, with no iodine flavor of the sort one often runs into in Houston restaurants (Chinese and otherwise). Clams in black bean sauce are outstanding, as is the jellyfish salad: delicate slices of jellyfish mixed with lightly pickled cucumbers and black duck eggs. The steamed buns range from okay (chicken buns) to excellent (barbecue pork buns). And, breaking with tradition, Fung's offers not only the de rigeur sweet sesame balls (delicious, but , to be honest, not quite as good as Kim Son's) but also a more savory version with black sesame seeds. The Chinese broccoli (gai lan -- actually a kind of kale) is perfect and plentiful, as it should be at any good Chinese restaurant.

But dim sum is ultimately about the dumplings, and the dumplings at Fung's are spectacular. In addition to the usual beef and pork xiu mai, there are shrimp-and-pork dumplings; chicken dumplings; shrimp and shark fin; and a variety of vegetable dumplings filled with different greens. The steamed ginger and beef tripe (round and dumpling-ish, though technically not a dumpling) is excellent.

Perversely, my normally highly suspicious children love the food at Fung's, though they remain unwilling to sample the chicken feet. The upside-down sticky rice with pork sausage is a serious favorite, and recently our waitress introduced another crowd-pleaser: "Japanese Sprite." It's a soft drink, of course, but it comes in a heavy glass bottle with a marble that doubles as bottlecap and entertainment. The drink, actually "Ramune" (almost embarassingly, a Japanese phonetic transliteration of 'lemonade') is fizzy and sweet with a taste reminiscent of Japanese candy.

So what if you're not required to take the D train and trudge through garbage-strewn streets to stand in line for an un-air-conditioned seat with total strangers? The dim sum is just as good, and just as varied, and the crowds -- 80% or more of whom are very happy Asian families -- are just as happy. If it makes you feel better, you can always take the bus home afterward.


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