7/11/2006 Houston -- As you drive west down traffic-choked Bellaire Boulevard, straight through the suburb of the same name and into the mini-mall sprawl of western Houston, it's obvious that this is the Lone Star State's biggest city. A corporate outpost of Halliburton, the controversial conglomerate, sits on the right, and Sally Jo's Old Houston Bar-B-Q joint is up on the left.
But Sally Jo's is dwarfed by something you might not expect to see in Space City, the home of NASA, Urban Cowboy, Beyonce and the hot ''chopped and screwed'' hip-hop scene. It's the 400,000-square-foot Hong Kong City Mall, a monument to shopping that's jam-packed with Asian markets, teahouses, noodle houses, karaoke bars, bakeries, clothing shops and DVD/CD stores hawking the latest stars from far across the Pacific.
And it's not alone. Up and down Bellaire near Beltway 8, Chinese and Vietnamese signs battle with English for dominance in a part of town dubbed New Houston Chinatown by some, Asiatown by others.
With the state's largest concentration of Asians and Asian-Americans -- 200,000 to 250,000 -- and a handful of distinctly Asian neighborhoods, Houston's tourism profile has a new dimension.
Unlike older, walkable, more densely populated and tourist-oriented Chinatowns in San Francisco or Vancouver, Houston's Chinatown are far apart and not necessarily easy to get to. But with word spreading about phenomenal food and unique merchandise, it's only a matter of time before they are discovered.
Back at the Hong Kong City Mall, one of the anchors is another mega eatery, the Ocean Palace, known for its dim sum.
It's all a result of the large numbers of Asian immigrants who've moved to the area in the last 30 years. After the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese settled here, adding to an existing Chinese community. Since then, they've been joined by immigrants from all over Asia.
A strip of South Asian and Middle Eastern businesses has mushroomed on Hillcroft Avenue, between U.S. 59 and Richmond Avenue; and a Korean area has blossomed nearby on Gessner Avenue. Of course, there can't be a new Chinatown without an old one. Just east of Houston's civic center sits the Old Chinatown. A few blocks to the south, in Midtown, you'll find the original Little Saigon, where the first wave of Vietnamese landed.
Although both are still worth checking out, they've lost much of their verve due to escalating land prices and New Chinatown's explosive growth. But don't ignore them, as they're closer to where most visitors stay in Houston and are easier to get to.
It's here, in a nondescript strip mall cheek-by-jowl with Double Nine Ginseng Herb and Saigon Travel, that you'll find Jenni's Noodle House, which has a wok full of new attitude. With signs declaring ''Noodles Are Cool, Everyone Knows It'' and ''Changing Lives, One Noodle at a Time,'' Jenni's is more postmodern than pre-war, but the meals -- such as the dumplings and pho -- have an old-fashioned, hearty sensibility.
For nourishment of a higher order, the nearby Tien Hou Temple, a Buddhist sanctuary that's open to the public, offers space for contemplation. (In a similar vein, if you have the time and transportation to get out to the suburb of Katy, visit the Forbidden Gardens, an elaborate outdoor space featuring one-third-scale replicas of the famous terra-cotta warriors and the Forbidden City.)
In Little Saigon, on Milam Avenue, which is flanked by Asian businesses, Mai's is open late and apparently is always crowded. After tasting the salt-toasted shrimp, the crab meat and asparagus soup and the garlic chicken, I can see why.
There's no better way to top off a meal like than with some pastries, tea, coffee or fruit juice at Tropioca, at the other end of Milam. Specializing in Asian-style boba and herbal-infused teas -- as well as Thai, chai, taro, almond, coconut and chocolate macadamia shakes -- Tropioca is a sleek, chill-out hangout that's library-quiet.
When celebrated Houston Rockets center Yao Ming decided to do the star-athlete thing and open a restaurant with his name, he didn't try it anywhere near Old Chinatown. The cavernous, $1.5 million Yao Restaurant and Bar -- owned by his dad Yao Zhiyuan and mom Fang Fengdi -- sits on yupscale Westheimer Road, a short drive from the Galleria and New Chinatown.
Tourists have to get the image of an old-fashioned Chinatown out of their heads, says Dan Nip, founder and president of the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Corp. Much like Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif., or the Asian neighborhoods in Southern California's San Gabriel Valley, New Chinatown takes a more suburban approach.
'Old Chinatowns were handed down from 50 years ago, where people are still living there, walking the streets, and you still see old people who don't speak English,'' he says. ``But in the new Chinatowns, the institutions are built from the ground up, and it's totally different.''
(Contributed by CARY DARLING, Knight Ridder News Service)