August 11, 2002

Nice article in today's Chron about the success of Asian immigrants in Houston. While there is an established Asian enclave on the south end of downtown, the booming area for new arrivals and their second-generation children is out west and southwest, starting in the Sharpstown area and heading out into the suburbs.

A little more than 20 years ago, this vast ethnic retail strip along Bellaire [Boulevard] was barren prairie with a building here and there. It is now the largest Asian business district in the South, and poised to get much bigger.

Stretching for miles, New Chinatown is unlike any other American Chinatown.

San Francisco's is an Old World scene with laundry strewn across windows, and in New York's crowded district, merchants hawk trinkets to tourists.

New Chinatown, meanwhile, is pure Houston, a string of strip centers with air-conditioned stores, built on the most basic of Houston formulas: Develop affordable land in driving range of your target suburban customer and keep expanding.

An ethnic retail community, the size of New Chinatown shatters the suburban stereotype and makes Asian immigrants feel at home as they assimilate into the mainstream.

One of the first developments in New Chinatown is the site of a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that's been a favorite in my crowd for years now:

New Chinatown was born in 1983 when Hong Kong native T.D. Wong and his nephew Kenneth Li developed a shopping center at Bellaire and Ranchester, in partnership with Chinese investor Chun Yao. They named it Diho Plaza.

They chose the spot for retail, Li said, because Bellaire was a major thoroughfare that went all the way to the Medical Center and it was near U.S. 59 and surrounded by residential development.

Li's uncle, with another partner, had already developed a Diho center in Monterrey Park in Los Angeles and believed a similar plan might work in Houston. Wong and Li approached Los Angeles entrepreneurs.

"We told them, `It's a new world,' " Li said. " `It's good for the young and the brave.' "

Recruiting from the Diho shopping center in Los Angeles, Yao, Wong and Li duplicated three of the businesses in Houston: the grocery store Diho Market, Lai Lai Dumpling House and World Bookstore.

If you live in Houston and you've never been to Lai Lai's, you need to go. If you don't live in Houston but may visit some day, you need to make someone bring you there. It's not fancy, it's not haute cuisine or nouveau cuisine or anything else pretentious and expensive enough to be called cuisine, it's just a little family run place that serves lots of good food cheap. My friend and coworker Andrea and I just took a group of coworkers there, where we joined Ginger for lunch. The tab for eight people, all of whom came away full and happy, was just over $30 before tip. We always bring a large crowd to Lai Lai's, and they always treat us like prodigal children returning home.

(Damn. Now I'm hungry...)

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 11, 2002 to Elsewhere in Houston

Damnit, Chuck. I just wrote a post on my blog about how great it was going to be living in NYC, and then you had to go and bring up Lai Lai's and make me homesick.

Thank goodness I've discovered Vegetarian Dim Sum House in Chinatown here. Slightly more expensive than Lai Lai's (tends towards $8-10 per person with tip), but the food is even better, and is - obviously - more vegetarian friendly.

Doesn't keep me from missing Lai Lai's - and the lovely hostess who greets you like long lost family.

Posted by: Amy on August 12, 2002 7:38 AM

I googled "Vegetarian Dim Sum" + Los Angeles
and this blog popped up!
I read your entry and I'm dying to try the Dim Sum restaurant you mentioned, but there is no name or address. Can you help me out?

Posted by: Gabriela Sosa on November 18, 2004 2:33 PM