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Ultimate Chinese New Year Guide

The best places to celebrate Chinese New Year: The restaurants, drinks and shows you don't want to miss

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Chinese Community Center of Houston dragon dance
The Year of the Horse comes with numerous Chinese New Year celebrations in Houston, including the traditional dragon dance at the Chinese Community Center of Houston. (File photo) Chinese Community Center of Houston/Facebook
Nara Houston rice cakes
The best rice cakes I’ve had recently came from Nara.  Nara Houston
Amy Chien Lunar New Year January 2014 Christine Ha at Leo Bar
Christine Ha brings her chef magic to Leo Bar at the Asia Society Texas Center. Photo courtesy of Leo Bar
Gigi's Asian Bistro, Dumpling Bar, chop sticks, December 2012
Dumplings at Gigi's Asian Bistro. Gigi's Asian Bistro & Dumpling Bar/Facebook
Latin Bites Houston sign on open door
On Jan. 30, Latin Bites transforms from an upscale Latin restaurant to a chifa. Latin Bites/Facebook
Chinese Community Center of Houston dragon dance
Nara Houston rice cakes
Amy Chien Lunar New Year January 2014 Christine Ha at Leo Bar
Gigi's Asian Bistro, Dumpling Bar, chop sticks, December 2012
Latin Bites Houston sign on open door
Amy Chien head shot column mug October 2013

I have a friend who is not only very into astrology, but also into Chinese zodiac signs. She would often say things like "Ah, you are a playful monkey!" It always takes me a moment to realize she's referring to my zodiac sign, not my gangly arms and fondness for bananas.

Even though I've always rolled my eyes at her Chinese astrology predictions, I can't help but wonder what kind of effect the Year of the Horse will have on my life in 2014.

 My favorite Lunar New Year tradition is of course, the food!  

Growing up with engineers and mathematicians, my family has never been one to believe in superstitions. But even the most rational-minded families find fun in folklore and traditions. My favorite Lunar New Year tradition is of course, the food!

Chinese New Year falls on Friday (Jan. 31) but activities in Houston continue through Feb. 11, so there's plenty of time to celebrate with food, activities and fun. Here are some of favorite ways to celebrate:

Nara Lunar New Year Special

The most common Lunar New Year food is nian gao, or rice cakes. Gao sounds the same as the word for tall, so rice cakes symbolize achieving new heights in the coming year. These aren’t the cardboard flavored rice cakes you’ll find in the diet foods aisle at the grocery store. Nian gao is made from glutinous rice and is usually stir fried in some sort of sauce with meats and vegetables. Korean rice cakes tend to be in stick form, while Chinese rice cakes are usually thinly sliced.

The best rice cakes I’ve had recently came from Nara. Donald Chang’s take on the traditional Korean dish may just beat Chris Shepherd’s braised goat and dumplings as my favorite dish. When Chang first proposed floating the rice cakes in oxtail, his own mother shook her head and said that it wouldn’t be good. But when Chang persuaded her to at least taste it, she changed her mind and approved of the dish.

Nara is offering a five-course Lunar New Year special Jan. 31 through Feb. 6, featuring hard-to-find dishes like mondoo (meat filled dumplings) and abalone porridge. The meal should be accompanied by a bottle (or two) of soju, which is consumed on New Year's to drive out diseases and bad auras. If you’ve never had it before, pop your soju cherry with the appropriately named Chumchurum, meaning “like the first time.”

Baijiu spirits

Not quite as traditional as soju (in fact, brand new to the United States) is baijiu, a liquor distilled from red sorghum. Matt Trusch founded Byejoe Spirits USA in hopes that baijiu will becomes just as popular in the United States as other foreign spirits like tequila and vodka. In an effort to achieve this goal, Byejoe is throwing a Chinese New Year bash on Saturday (Feb. 1) at Summer Street Studios and admission is free.

Guests can sip on complimentary Byejoe cocktails while watching dancing dragon and ribbon dancers. Immersioncy-hosted parties are always packed with a fun-loving, unpretentious crowd, and this one should be no different.

Chuan's Bian Lian shows

Chuan's Chinese Restaurant opened just last September and has already gained popularity due to its traditional Szechuan dishes and Bian Lian shows. Rare to find in the United States, much less Houston, Bian Lian shows are a must see. The term literally translates to "face-changing" and similar to Chinese opera, performers in dramatic masks depict famous opera characters by changing faces rapidly with motions like fan swipes, head movements, or hand waves.

You can catch Bian Lian shows on Lundr New Year Eve and Day (Jan. 31 and Feb. 1) between 7 and 7:30 pm. Performances are generally about 10 minutes with no repeats, so make sure you get there on time. If you cannot make it for the new year celebrations, they will bring back the performance for Lantern Festival, which happens to coincide with Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14 and 15). A special family-style Lunar New Year menu will be offered for groups of 10 or more people. 

Fung's Kitchen

If you favor classic Chinese dishes, everyone’s favorite Chinese chef (in my fantasy family, he plays my dad) Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook is joined by Iron Chef Tony Wu and Fung’s owner and executive chef Hoi Fung to host Fung’s Kitchen’s annual Lunar New Year festivities on Feb. 11. Wu is sure to demonstrate his noodle pulling prowess, reprising his amazing feat of pulling 16,000 noodles at the HSBC Chinese Restaurant Awards in 2011. There will be lion dancing as well as live cooking demonstrations, raffles, and a Chinese banquet.

New Year tradition at Shanghai River

For 30 years, Shanghai River has celebrated Chinese New Year with a special menu and dragon dances in the parking lot of the restaurant on Westheimer near Kirby. The venerable restaurant, which was a favorite dining spot of Channel 13's Marvin Zindler, will light up again on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, with activities that include authentic Chinese calligraphy, a good luck Chinese New Year's menu and drinks and a 30-person dragon dance team celebrating the Year of the Horse at 8:15 p.m. both nights.

Gigi's Asian Bistro

Gigi's Asian Bistro ups the ante with a big Lunar New Year celebration hosted by owner Gigi Huang, Jared Lang and Christopher Mendel. The party takes place on Jan. 31 from 7 to 10 p.m. on the patio of the restaurant in front of The Galleria, where Hao Lion dancers will perform and there will be a "naked fortune cookies" surprise. We can only imagine what that will entail!

Offerings include Dragon Blossom Martinis (a ginger vodka cosmopolitan with Elderflower liqueer), edamame dumplings in truffle butter, as well as other classic dim sum favorites like shu mai and potstickers. Guests are asked to "dress to kill — Shanghai style."

Formosa Bistro

Lunar New Year is an excellent time to try out a less well-known Asian cuisine. When I stumbled upon Formosa Bistro a couple of weeks ago, I thought I was probably one of the few people in Houston who knew about this little gem. Leave it to Katharine Shilcutt of Houstonia Magazine to beat me to the punch! Shilcutt praises Formosa Bistro’s milkfish soup, one of my childhood favorites.

A staple to the traditional Lunar New Year dinner, the Taiwanese sausages here are plump with just a tinge of sweetness. Hard to find treats like Tainan shrimp rolls and clams with silk squash are not to be missed.

Latin Bites

Chifa, meaning “food and drink” in Chinese, is a type of Peruvian Chinese tapas restaurant popular in Lima. On Thursday (Jan. 30), Latin Bites transforms from an upscale Latin restaurant to a chifa, with dishes like chicharron de pollo (fried chicken with Chinese lime sauce), cebiche chifero (white fish in oyster sauce and peanuts), and lomo al ajo (beef in garlic confit sauce).

MasterChef winner at Asia Society Texas Center

Leo Bar at Asia Society Texas Center will host a cultural evening on Feb. 6 with MasterChef winner Christine Ha. The first blind chef in MasterChef history, Ha will collaborate with Boheme Cafe and Wine Bar’s Rishi Singh on a Lunar New Year-inspired tasting menu. DJ Baohaus will be there with her soulful downtempo beats while Ha takes photos with fans and signs her new cookbook Recipes from my Home Kitchen. 

Singh adds his own twists to some of Ha’s most well-known recipes in his three-course menu which will include Vietnamese egg rolls (signifying wealth), Ha’s pickled vegetables, lobster lo mein (noodles signify longevity), and Indian-inspired infused yogurt (think thai tea or perhaps kaffir lime!) with a deconstructed fruit salad.

Year of the Horse performances

The Chinese Community Center holds it annual Lunar New Year Festival,  a six-hour multi-cultural celebration, on Feb. 1, at the center's newly renovated indoor auditorium at 9800 Town Park. It includes traditional dragon and lion dances, along with karaoke, origami and Chinese calligraphy demonstrations and shadow puppet shows.

A big Lunar New Year celebration also takes place on Feb. 8 and 9 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Viet Hoa Center in the Beltway Plaza, 8388 Sam Houston Parkway South. The lineup includes music and tai chi ensembles, martial arts performers, lion dancers with firecrackers and greetings from a host of elected officials, including Mayor Annise Parker.

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