Ice cream sundaes are all well and good, but they’re so much better when topped with tapioca balls and creamy red beans. With a little cash and some perseverance, you too can discover the best Asian dessert places in town.
They may carry strange names and be tucked away in strip malls, but the crowds in these dessert joints prove that they are big on flavor.
1. Star Snow Ice #1 (Welcome Center)
Star Snow Ice #1 was the first “it” place to get shaved ice in Chinatown. Although it now has two locations, the original still has the best toppings, among them sweet red beans, slow-cooked peanuts and tart bright green mango slices.
My parents claim Star Snow Ice #1 has better shaved ice than even the most famous proprietors in Taiwan, and they just might be right.
Tapioca drinks here reign supreme above all other tapioca cafes in Houston — you'll never want to go to Teahouse again after you’ve chewed on one of their expertly cooked tapioca balls.
2. Texas Lee Bakery (Diho Square)
This no-frills store is one of the oldest bakeries in Chinatown. It has no seats or tables, but the fresh pastries, breads, and cakes keep customers coming back.
House-made sweet and savory zhong zi (sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves), traditional pastries stuffed with red bean paste, custard filling, or barbecue pork are also sold here, and you won’t be able to resist the sky-high pile of fried crullers dripping in syrup. Don't worry, they're worth it.
3. Olympic Chinese Bakery (Welcome Center)
Owned by the same family as Texas Lee Bakery, Olympic Chinese Bakery is the modern version of the beloved original. Trays of buttery, flaky pastries filled with cheese custard, taro, or curry beef, along with healthier options such as whole wheat multi-grain toast, pumpkin seed buns, and cranberry loaves line the bakery shelves.
Don’t miss the specialty cakes layered with silky egg pudding.
4. Juice Box (Dun Huang Plaza)
All the hype you've heard about Juice Box is true: The desserts here are orgasm-inducing, at least in the mouth, and the temperamental proprietors are only half the fun. Their huge menu is confusing at first, but here's the rundown: First choose a fruit, then specify smoothie or juice, and finally select the add-in (yogurt, ice cream, or if you dare, pick Calpis, a Japanese yogurt drink).
Or you can go all out and get the house signature dessert: Shaved ice served with your choice of fruit and drizzled with condensed milk, then topped with flan or a scoop of Blue Bell ice cream.
Hong Kong’s amalgamation of Eastern and Western cultures resulted in delicious fusion cuisine, and the most authentic version of it in Houston is at House of Bowls.
Some consider Hong Kong-ese iced milk tea and coffee an acquired taste, either is delicious when paired with their condensed-milk-covered French toast, waffles with fruit, or ice cream crepe rolls. Afternoon tea is available daily from 2:30 to 5 p.m.
6. Cafe la Tea (Welcome Center)
One of the only cafes in Chinatown with trained baristas, Cafe la Tea is a great place to study and have a slice of fresh mango mousse or mandarin orange chocolate cake — the afternoon tea combination is a great deal. Full food service is offered all day, but come in the evening for more of a restaurant experience.
7. Patisserie Jungle Cafe (Dun Huang Plaza)
If you’re looking for the typical, trendy, Asian-pop-styled Chinatown bakery, prepare for a surprise. Sleek and modern with glass surfaces and a minimalist setting, this French-Japanese cafe is refreshingly different while keeping with Japanese baking traditions.
The cakes are light and delicate, and the cafe offers a selection of amazing French-style macarons, a rarity in Houston much less Chinatown.
8. Tea Bar (Dun Huang Plaza)
Along with offering a traditional selection of iced, hot, milk, and bubble teas (among them the perfect red bean smoothie), Tea Bar stands out for its fresh ingredients and unusual menu items, including tapioca longan soup, matcha coffee, and milk teas flavored with coconut or rose hips.
For a decadent treat, try the fluffy brick toast, made by grilling peanut butter or black sesame and honey paste between two slices of thick Taiwanese toast.
9. Frozen Cafe (Dun Huang Plaza)
Self-serve frozen yogurt and unusual gelato flavors like taro, green tea, and mango peach make this a sweet stop, but its Hong Kong-ese gai daan jai (egg-shaped waffles) make for a unique must-try treat. Crispy on the outside with a soft and fluffy interior, they’re the waffle cone you don’t have to pair with ice cream to enjoy.
10. Gelato Cup Italian Ice-cream (Dun Huang Plaza)
Who would've guessed that Chinatown has some of the best gelato in Houston? Gelato Cup offers delicious standard flavors such as hazelnut and chocolate, and for more adventurous eaters there's black sesame, taro, or durian. Hot mochi covered in peanut powder is also on the menu (a unique find, even in Chinatown) along with tapioca desserts.