Berg Hospitality’s Upscale Chinese Restaurant is Now Open in Houston
Benny Chows, the Chinese-American restaurant from Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality Group, opened for lunch on Wednesday, June 28 and for both lunch and dinner on Thursday, June 29. It’s located at 1818 Washington Avenue steps away from Berg’s original restaurant, B&B Butchers, and it is his 11th restaurant in Texas. (Ten of those locations are in Houston.) Berg says the idea for Benny Chows was inspired by his early experiences with Chinese food in New York City.
“Growing up in New York, hot dogs, pizza and Chinese — that’s my comfort food,” said Berg in a phone interview. “I probably order Chinese more for delivery than pizza.”
Thomas Vo, previously of Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille – River Oaks and Uptown Sushi, is the general manager. Berg retained acclaimed Chinese chef Doron Wong from New York City to develop the menu (along with Berg Hospitality’s Vice President of Culinary, Brian Sutton) and executive chef Shirong Mei to helm the kitchen on a day-to-day basis. Mei’s 30 years of experience started in Hong Kong, and his most recent jobs were at ONE Dim Sum (now Taste Of Mulan) and now-closed Yauatcha at The Galleria.
One of the signature dishes is the Smoked Brisket Egg Roll, which uses smoked beef from nearby Truth BBQ and is served with Asian slaw, Chinese barbecue sauce and mustard sauce ($17). The barbecue joint’s brisket makes another appearance, as it’s one of the three meats in the Holy Trinity Fried Rice ($28). The others are Chinese sausage and char siu pork.
Another feature of the menu: there are nine different types of dumplings, including Crystal Shrimp Dumplings ($18), XLB (xiao long bao) Soup Dumplings with ginger sauce and XLB vinegar ($20) and Berkshire Pork Potstickers ($16). It was also of particular importance to Berg to have cold sesame noodles on the menu — a dish rarely seen in Houston Chinese restaurants, but which is common in New York.
There are also culinary luxuries. The Caviar Chips, fried scallion pancakes topped with an ounce of Benny Chows-branded Reserve White Sturgeon Caviar, will set diners back $168. Dover Sole with Cantonese black bean sauce, ginger, scallions and soy is a cool $78, and Cantonese lobster — a two-pound Maine lobster with ginger and scallion — is $68. The 2lb. Lobster Noodles with udon, black pepper sauce, ginger and scallions is $92.
Berg and company are throwing down the gauntlet with their Peking Duck and already claiming it’s the best in the city. It’s a seven-pound, humanely raised, Jurgielewicz duck that takes three days to prepare and is served with julienne scallion, cucumber, pickled vegetables, hoisin, cranberry sauce and housemade pancakes. There are a limited number available per day, and the cost is $168. One of the two private dining rooms is even named The Peking Duck Room; there will be more private dining rooms after Benny Chows expands into the space next door.
Mixologist Jose Lucas has created a list of eight specialty cocktails, some of which are infused with TEALEAVES tea, like Ruby Foo’s Teardrop with gin, butterfly pea flower tea, elderflower tonic and rosemary. There’s a big showstopper drink, too: Mr. K’s Scorpion, a riff on a communal tiki classic served in a large crystal decanter and garnished with “scorpion lollipops”.
You’ve probably noticed by now that Benny Chows’ dishes are expensive — certainly far more costly than in Chinatown. The reason is obvious in some cases; with the Berkshire Pork Potstickers, it’s because a high-quality ingredient is featured. However, writer Cindy Wang noted an affront: a bowl of white rice is $6. Some of our writers are also wondering why the restaurant’s gallery webpage features a stock photo of a massage parlor rather than the opulent gold-and-red dining room (a stunner, the buildout cost of which likely demanded that the dishes be at a certain price-point). The design, by the way, was a collaboration of Berg Hospitality’s “VP of Design & Experience”, Sam Governale, and Gail McCleese of Sensitori.
As previously covered by Emma Balter, formerly of Chron.com and now editor-in-chief at Houstonia, the initial announcement of Benny Chows in February was criticized by members of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. One of the complaints was about the commandeered Chinese last name in the restaurant name. “Benny” is Berg’s nickname. “Picking a random Chinese-sounding name to be kind of kitschy feels a little problematic,” chef Nick Wong, formerly of Georgia James Tavern, told Balter.
Another issue was the terminology used in an early press release, as it said that Benny Chows would be “offering elevated Cantonese eats.” The word does not appear anywhere in the new press release about the opening.
In a public Facebook post in April, Houston attorney Kang Chen posted, “I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a white/non-Asian person opening an ‘elevated’ Chinese restaurant. Everything depends on whether that’s executed with cultural awareness. So far I have seen none. So far what I’ve seen is him doubling down on his cultural tone-deafness.”
We contacted him to see if his perspective has changed, and he said, “I think the execution of the concept is promising. If you are a non-Asian restaurateur wanting to open an Asian restaurant in a respectful way, how would you do it? You would tap the knowledge and experience of people steeped in that cuisine, which it looks like Berg has done. I know the name will be problematic for some people, and Berg’s response to that issue being raised to him (basically, “I asked my Chinese friend and he was cool with it”), compounded the problem, but I think that is a teaching opportunity. As you know, one of the largest Facebook groups supporting Asian restaurants is called Chow Down in Chinatown, but that was a group started by Asians. Words signify differently coming from different people.” Chen also shared that he’s normally a fan of Berg Hospitality’s restaurants.
“First and foremost, I’m in the hospitality business. In no way do we ever want to go out and offend anyone. [Benny Chows] is honoring what’s a very regional type of Chinese food,” said Berg.
Berg says the word “elevated” in the original marketing was taken in a way that he didn’t intend, and that it alluded to the high-quality ingredients being used in Benny Chows’ dishes.
“I think that word bothered people, and I can see why. What we’re trying to do here is bring dishes from New York, like cold sesame noodles, a cult dish that just doesn’t exist in Houston, share my experiences and honor American-Chinese cuisine. The space is also an homage to the culture and the most layered, beautiful space we’ve ever done. It’s like the duck we’re bringing in. This was a carefully, seriously sourced duck from Jurgielewicz in Pennsylvania. I don’t think many people are using it here. It’s a different ingredient. We’re taking a classic dish like General Tso’s chicken and doing it as a half-chicken on the bone. We’re just doing things differently. That doesn’t make it better or worse [than a classic] — although I do think the General Tso’s chicken is really freaking good.”
Chen is hopeful that Berg will engage with the AAPI community to further understand their perspectives. “I think a conversation between him and the AAPI community — and not just his Asian business partners or employees who have a stake in his restaurant doing well — could benefit both,” Chen said.
Benny Chows is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Reservations are available via OpenTable.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.