As Houston holds on to its title as the most ethnically diverse American city, a study this year showed its metropolitan area is home to the country’s ninth largest Asian-American population: 550,675 people.
Now, Asian restaurant owners with top-grossing outlets on the East and West coasts — the Chinese-themed Friendship BBQ and the Korean-inspired Honey Pig — have become part of a national business influx along Bellaire Boulevard in the Southwest Management District. The corridor is home to Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian Thai and Japanese businesses that cater largely to the growing Asian population as well as locals and visitors of every kind.
Friendship BBQ was established first in New York, with 20 “essential, chef-approved favorites, primarily skewers of seasoned meats — beef, pork, lamb and crawfish — and vegetables, and hot pots of meat and vegetable dishes, all with Chinese-flavored barbeque sauce,” said Carol Liu, manager of the Houston location, 9889 Bellaire Blvd., Suite D-238, in Dun Huang Plaza.
Liu said the owners decided to locate in Houston, particularly on Bellaire Boulevard, because of its heavily Asian population and its rapid growth. But customers have come from greater Houston, Katy and Fort Bend County areas, too, she said.
Friendship’s recipe for success is its authentic barbecue with “real Chinese hot flavor,” Liu said. “We have mildly hot, medium hot and very spicy hot. Everyone seems to like one or more of the Chinese flavors.”
Before choosing Houston as only its second central United States location, the owners expanded from their original Manhattan location to Brooklyn and Flushing N.Y., Boston, Chicago and Allston, Mass.; Bethesda, Md.; and Los Angeles and Seattle.
“From Friday to Sunday, we are very busy,” Liu said. “And everything is fresh from our kitchen. It’s a very different flavor than American barbecue. Everything is on sticks, or skewers, and our dishes are true to Sichuan Chinese tastes.”
Also different than American barbecue restaurants is the intensity of the red and black décor under red lights and the pulse-pounding music, largely Black-inspired hip-hop, rap and spoken-word styles over a sound system that cannot be ignored.
“Young people love it,” Liu said. “A lot of young people, and kids, come here for birthdays and other celebrations. Older people also seem to like it and come here for anniversaries, or just to eat and get a taste of home.”
Skewered and grilled meats are also a central feature at Honey Pig, a Korean-style barbecue house specializing in the all-you-can-eat approach.
“Our menu is basically Northeast Chinese and Korean street food, with meat, veggies or offal skewered or in hot pots – foil pots with meat and veggies cooked together – like you would find in street sidewalk stands in China,” said Kimberly Gibbs, a Honey Pig server.
Honey Pig, named for the sweet pork that is a prime meat in Korean-style barbecue, was successful in two East Coast locations in Maryland and Virginia before opening its first central U.S. location in Houston in December at Diho Square.
“The owner picked Houston because of its large Asian population and she wanted to share her Korean culture here,” said Gibbs. “The food, mostly spicy pork belly – a favorite — is very traditional, authentic. Customers like it because it’s what they would eat at home. And that’s true of all of our large Asian customer base, which is Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino.”
Inside Honey Pig, groups of friends or family sit around grills where they can cook their own meat to their individual tastes. They are given scissors to cut their meat into cubes or slices and tongs to turn the meat while cooking. Metal funnels over each pit serve as stacks, carrying away smoke into ventilators.
“We have our own sauce. It’s sweet but not extremely sweet. Sweet but with garlic,” she said. “It goes on all the meats.”
Big screens with images of Asian teenage performers blare Kpop, the Korean popular music popular with many young people in the U.S.
“We do a lot of business on weekends, catering birthday parties. We do it up big, with cake and candles, and the kids love the Kpop,” Gibbs said.
Reservations are required for parties of 10 or more and should be made at least 24 hours in advance, Gibbs said.
The Houston franchise has been so successful that Honey Pig’s owner is planning a second restaurant here, soon after opening one in Austin next year.
9889 Bellaire Blvd., Houston 77036
9140 Bellaire Blvd., Houston 77036
Open Fri.-Sat. 10:30 am.m to midnight, other days 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
— by Betty Martin–