In my continuing pursuit of exotic breakfast experiences (just call it my Xtreme Breakfast Project), I met Channel 13 reporter Miya Shay and her fiancee, Assistant District Attorney and state representative candidate Gene Wu, at one of their favorite morning spots: Classic Kitchen on Bellaire Blvd., just a little bit east of Beltway 8.
Between the ordering negotiations with our waitress and the back-and-forth between Shay and Wu, I felt as if I had landed in the midst of a swiftly moving ping pong match.
"We're speaking two different kinds of Chinese," Wu explained as the waitress headed off with an epic list of items we were determined to sample. Wu's parents are from Hong Kong by way of Fujian, so he speaks Cantonese; and Shay, whose family is from Beijing, speaks Mandarin. "You should hear us when our families get together for dinner," Shay said, laughing. With the addition of English, it's a three-language proposition.
Shay and I had been discussing her love for jellied tofu dishes over Twitter, and two forms of this delicacy landed on our table, quickly convincing me that I had been missing out all these years. The Sweet Jellied Tofu was a bowlful of cool ivory silk, only gently sweet and gingery in its light syrup, with a crunch of peanuts on top. If you like panna cotta, this one's for you. The smooth, slippery flaps of bean curd were all innocence, the kind of thing that might soothe a peckish child — or a fretful adult — and a good match for our potful of Oolong tea.
"Oolong's the tea that got me through law school," Wu testified. He swears by its energizing properties, and he speaks of it as though it were the strong, butt-kicking coffee of teas. I ended up drinking cup after cup after cup.
As smitten as I was with the Sweet Jellied Tofu, my first spoonful of Salted Jellied Tofu actually got a "wow" out of me. Where the sweet version was chilled and ethereal, the savory one was warm and earthy, topped with a rough-textured stew of ground pork with glassy tree ear fungus and a batch of cilantro leaves. Where the sweet one soothed, the salty one invigorated.
I could have dunked one of our Fried Dough sticks, the crullers called yu tiao, into this soupy concoction, but I was quickly diverted by the more fetching and soppable Thousand-Layer Pancake, a feathery bird's nest of fried dough with a moist interior and crisp crust. It came apart in soft shreds, and I couldn't quit eating it: it outshone not only the rather leaden scallion pancake we had ordered, but the fried dough sticks as well.
Truth to tell, I've never liked the fried dough sticks in Houston as well as I liked the ones I tried on a trip to Thailand, where I ate them with jok, the Thai answer to congee. When they're not greasy here, they tend to be a little tough. Without prompting, Wu offered the likely explanation.
"The yu tiao in China taste different than they do here," he said. "It's because the flour isn't as good there." What he meant was that Western flours used in baking are "hard," with a high protein content. The flours used in China for yu tiaoare softer, more like cake flour in terms of protein percentage, yielding a downier fried bread stick.
We ended up with whopping stacks of elongated Pan-fried Pork Dumplings that give the excellent specimens at nearby FuFu Cafe a run for their money, as well as Pan-fried Pork Buns, the round, blossom-shaped mega-dumplings known as baize. I had only ever eaten them baked or simply steamed, and I loved the pot-sticker effect that pan-frying gave the bottom surfaces.
With our various fried items we concocted a dip of black vinegar, chili oil and soy that made everything snap to attention. Shay had leapt up at the beginning of our meal to procure a bottle of vinegar from the staff.
"It really bothers me when I go into a Chinese restaurant and have to ask for vinegar" she confessed. I've always felt the same way, and I've always felt slightly guilty about it. Now, suddenly, I felt absolved. "Is it standard operating procedure to doctor the Salted Jellied Tofu?" I asked. "Sure, go for it," Shay replied, whereupon I promptly ruined my small cupful by splooshing way too much vinegar into it. Pride goeth before a fall.
We went off the breakfast-item reservation to order one of Wu's favorite dishes here, the Spicy Beef Noodle Soup with Tendon. For Wu, this deeply flavored soup is about the house-made noodles, cut medium thick and curling through the bowl in springy waves. For Shay, it's all about the soft, slightly gelled texture of the beef tendon, which had just the right resilience to it. I loved the green crunch of bok choy and the shimmering dots of melted beef fat on the surface of the five-spiced broth, which was only mildly hot. (Tabletop chile oil was there for the customizing.)
By the end, our table looked as if a tornado had blown through. "With Asian food, if you haven't made a mess you haven't enjoyed it," declared Wu. When I cast aside my chopsticks to rip apart the Thousand-Layer Pancake I had fallen in love with, he had actually encouraged me to go ahead and use my hands. That's advice I am always happy to hear. Sometimes utensils just seem to get in the way of my fun.
Wu and Shay prepped me for my next visit, walking me through the long page of breakfast items and recommending the Baked Sesame Pancake with Pork and the Boiled Chive Dumplings. Oh, and the Millet Rice Porridge, a favorite "country breakfast" of Wu's father. I had my eye on the Turnip Pastry, the mysterious-sounding Pumpkin Pancake, and the Salted Soy Bean Milk, because I wanted to see how it compared to the version at nearby Central China.
Just remember one thing, Shay and Wu reminded me as we sat in the peaceful dining room, which was only about a third full between 10 a.m. and 11:30 in midweek. On the weekend, the place is jammed with Asian patrons, with lines out the door. I'd have to be prepared for a wait on Saturday and Sunday mornings, unless I came when the doors opened at 7:30 a.m.
I could almost imagine doing that for the pleasure of having a Thousand-Layer Pancake all to myself.
Classic Kitchen Restaurant, 9888 Bellaire Blvd., #108, 713-270-8545. Open daily 7:30 a.m. — 9 p.m.