During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when gathering in crowds at eateries was prohibited, Luis Chen walked from restaurant to restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown every few weeks. He was gathering information.
He was looking to see if they were open or closed and if they were offering limited dine-in or takeout. He would compile the information and post it on www.ChinatownHTX.com and social media.
Chen is still walking from restaurant to restaurant. Except now he is accompanied by groups of foodies and/or other people eager to try new foods. They are there to experience Chinatown with some guidance from Chen as a food blogger and “Yelp Elite Squad.”
He says his mission is to expand Chinatown’s profile as a tourist destination.
Chen began planning Chinatown Crawl meetup events in May 2016. About two dozen guests attended his inaugural event during Asian Heritage Month. Before that, he would gather with other frequent Yelp reviewers for unofficial events.
“When a few of my Yelper friends gathered to eat something somewhere, gradually other people learn about it through word of mouth,” Chen said.
One day a friend from Magnolia asked him about leading a private tour of Chinatown, so he planned a dinner involving the sampling of foods at multiple restaurants on the same night. He has since lost track of how many events he has hosted. He serves as an unofficial ambassador for grocery stores and other associated businesses.
“I only host at restaurants I am familiar with because my guests have a variety of dietary preferences. I often translate the menu items and categorize them by ingredients. So, they can enjoy the cultural experience with the rest,” Chen said, always concerned that his guests get the best experience possible.
Chen’s most recent events in February and May were completely full. Proving, he said, that people are “hungry for new foodie venues.”
On Saturday, June 25, Chen will combine food and art with the crawl starting at the new Chinatown mural, “Longevity,” at Sterling Square, 9798 Bellaire Blvd.
He will deliver a presentation about the mural, lead a dinner at MDK Noodles and then head over to Happy Lemon for dessert. The theme celebrates Immigrant Heritage Month, which is quite fitting for Chen, who was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Paraguay as a teen.
After relocating to San Jose, CA, he joined the U.S. Army and served two years of active duty in San Antonio. He then joined the U.S. Army Reserves in California. Eventually Chen moved to Houston, where he helped found the Asian Pacific American Employee Resource Group Houston Chapter for Comcast workers in 2017. He has also served on the board of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Association since 2019.
In addition to Chinatown crawls, Chen has also led groups on other adventures in the area, including a tour of Westcroft Center in the Gandhi District (5700 Hillcroft) of the Southwest Management District. His criteria for a location is simple: You must be able to dine, have dessert and shop at locales within walking distance of each other.
At the Gandhi District crawl, Chen took the group — with the assistance of Cathy Podell of Houston Asiatown Tours — for dinner at Darband Shishkabob, dessert at Kwality Ice Cream, more dessert at Nablus Sweets and then shopping at India Mart, 5604 Hillcroft. The owners of those establishments seemed thrilled to have Chen and his group there as they patiently and proudly explained the various foods on offer to those new to the cuisine or products.
The meet-ups are free and a great way to meet new people or gather with friends or family for a new adventure. Also free are some restaurant food samples. Each guest pays for what they buy to eat or take home. You will likely also take home a mandarin orange, as Chen likes to give them to his guests, wishing them abundance, happiness and prosperity — something Chen is also helping Chinatown’s businesses achieve.
For the June 25 event, sign up here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/
More events are planned for the rest of the year. Follow Chinatown Crawl at these sites for the latest info:
— by Dorothy Puch Lillig