Thanks to Cathy Podell, more than 600 people from near and far have made their first curious visits to Asian and South Asian restaurants and other internationally flavored businesses along the western Bellaire Boulevard and Hillcroft Street corridors.
What’s more, a significant number of the visitors hadn’t even known until then that Houston had a “Chinatown” or an adjacent Gandhi District.
They’ll be back now, and many more “rookie” visitors are on their way to the fascinating locations, through Podell’s enterprise, Houston Asiatown Tours, LLC. The Southwest Management District and International Management District have provided partial funding for the business with the realization that her customized outings — for anywhere between three to 100 people at a time — contribute to the economic development of their services areas.
Podell lived in other U.S. states before moving to Houston almost 10 years ago and has no Asian ethnicity. So, how she became an unofficial ambassador to dim sum, Indian-Pakistani supermarkets, banh mi sandwiches, temples, Korean barbecue and the like is a story within this story.
After working on programming for seniors at the Houston Jewish Community Center, she was hired by the Chinese Community Center to work on economic development in the community it serves. She started leading tours of some of the highlights of the Chinatown/Little Saigon area, but the pandemic that hit in 2020 ended the effort. Podell switched to “virtual tours” — online demonstrations of Asian cooking and arts by local experts — with help from the Houston Arts Alliance and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and through her work with the Asia Society Texas Center.
A request from a private school to take students on an in-person tour in fall 2021 signaled that such field trips could resume. That’s when Podell formed Houston Asiatown Tours and became a paid guide for students, civic clubs, seniors’ clubs, law firms, religious organizations, neighborhood groups and individuals wanting a customized look at the wonders of “Asiatown.”
“The support I’ve gotten from the Asian community has been incredible. I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback,” Podell said.
“I see Houston through the eyes of someone who didn’t grow up here,” she added, “and that may give me some perspective.”
With about five years of experience, she’s now expert at taking visitors to places they “need” to go. The proof of that could be heard from the half-full mouths of some of her customers on a recent tour of businesses in the Gandhi District.
“Oh, it’s all so delicious,” said a local woman who was among a relatively small tour group enjoying the Indian/Pakistani lunch buffet at Mezban Restaurant.
“My tongue is on fire,” said another customer, not entirely unhappily, as the group marveled at the all-you-can-eat selections.
Neither of the eaters had ever been to that part of the city. After lunch, the group — which mostly traveled in a chartered van — walked across the parking to Roop Sari Palace, an eyed-popping and busy South Asian clothing emporium, and Parivar Market, a sprawling space that stocks everything from henna powder and dried lentils to yogurt, fresh produce and incense.
A remark most often heard by Podell’s customers, whether the subject was canned food or a freshly baked item, was, “What is it?” Podell had the answer, or she asked shopkeepers and restaurant staffs to provide them.
The four-hour journey ended at Nablus Sweets (https://nablussweetsus.com), a bakery specializing in knafeh — a cheesy, stretchy cake encased in philo dough and drizzled with sugar syrup, that originated in Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank of Israel.
Asked what surprised him most, a local man on the tour said, “I never realized (the International cluster of businesses) was so large and so well established.”
Podell’s most frequent tours, however, have included stops at Chinese restaurants in the Southwest Management and International District that offer dim sum, noodle dishes and other dazzling varieties of food using traditional recipes from various Chinese cuisines such as Cantonese (mild) and Szechuan (spicy).
For eager eaters who vow to return to the neighborhood after sampling the food, Podell distributes a “bingo card” listing 24 tried-and-true Chinese eateries.
Houston Asiatown Tours trips typically are inclusive packages that include the price of restaurant food and transportation. Standard group tours cost $65 or $75 per person.
Coming up: A May 20 tour celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and another on June 17.