Houston’s Asiatown is losing moms and dads to global franchises. This restaurant is fighting.



Six days a week, two cars full of young activists and retirees carry bags full of papers from an Asiatown restaurant, past the tantalizing aromas of simmered pork bone broth, Sichuan mala tang and kimchi soup.

In a matter of hours, voter registration flyers will be hanging from hundreds of doors at apartment complexes in southwest Houston.

At Shabu House, a staple in Asiatown since the early 2000s, serving the community means comfort food and civic engagement, said owner Deborah Chen. The restaurant specializes in convivial Chinese fondue, where patrons order platters full of raw vegetables, tofu, and delicately curled slices of beef and lamb, which they cook in casseroles on the table.

The menu’s wide array of cultural influences is one example of the diversity that makes Houston’s Asiatown unique in the country, Chen said. But aging restaurant owners are retiring, costs are rising, and global competition from chain restaurants is intensifying, she said.

Chen said traditional restaurants like Shabu House can achieve success by taking a more active role in a local community focused on the meals and spaces they offer, which she did when she became a co-owner in late 2019. standards that prevented Asiatown businesses from engaging in community activism.


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Pandemic displacement

For decades, the Southwestern neighborhood of Houston has been the culinary soul of many Asian American communities. More than a hundred Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and South Asian restaurants jostle on an eight-kilometer stretch of Boulevard Bellaire. Asian grocery stores, salons, civic centers and ornate Buddhist temples complete a dazzling array of activities.

Many stores operated with low margins in good years, Chen said. The pandemic downturn has accelerated the loss of decades-old restaurants and, with them, complex cooking skills, she said.

“I think we are now the only hot place that makes their pork bone broth from scratch,” Chen said.

Not all traditional restaurants are short on options. After Chen got involved with Shabu House, she began expanding the menu with platters of Asian snacks and milk teas, leveraging the image of fondue as the “ultimate comfort food” for attract a more diverse crowd, she said.

“Fondue is my favorite Chinese food, I grew up eating fondue as a family,” Chen said. “When I walked in, we added Taiwanese golden rolls – it’s a pure childhood treat. It evokes memories of childhood. It reminds me of my grandmother.

But the pandemic quickly hit Asiatown, devastating the community. In January 2020, a false rumor of a COVID outbreak, fueled by social media and local political ads blaming the Chinese for the virus, emptied stores in Asiatown long before the city closed in March.

At the time, Chen said, she was one of the few business owners willing to speak out against the rumor alongside local officials. Chen, an Asian-American immigration lawyer and activist, said she plans to set a different example with Shabu House.

“I came there wanting to create a community space,” she said. “I wanted to show that you can be a successful business and support community work at the same time. “

But Chen quickly faced pandemic financial shortages. Like many traditional restaurants, Shabu House depended on a loyal base of multigenerational families who regularly visited Asiatown.

“If you only take the (Chinese) language schools, on a typical Saturday or Sunday, you have hundreds of families that are here to buy groceries or go to see Grandma, Grandpa and take them to eat with them. grandchildren, ”Chen said. . “Because of COVID, everyone has been locked up. “

Each mall has lost three to four restaurants, she said, including some of her childhood favorites. Shabu House has become the only restaurant in Asiatown to put anti-COVID curtains on the cabins, she said. But security measures failed to convince many regulars to return.

“In the midst of COVID, July, August, we would have many days when we didn’t have any sales,” Chen said. “We just didn’t think it could ever be this bad. “

Personal savings and federal P3 loans helped pay the bills.

Chen said she had to be creative to serve and engage the community. In the fall of 2020, Shabu House was filled with boxes of flyers promoting the 2020 census, voter registration, and pandemic rent relief.

Servers and volunteers from OCA-Greater Houston, an Asian-American nonprofit that Chen helped run, met daily to assemble and drop off the flyers at more than 200,000 homes in nearby neighborhoods.

It’s an effort Chen and OCA-GH are repeating for this fall’s local election. On Monday evening, plates slammed and hot pans stirred as waiters tended to guests and filled bags of flyers. Solicitors entered the restaurant after completing an apartment complex.

Working at a corner table covered in OCA-GH documents, Chen said she was trying to keep Shabu House afloat despite losses from the February winter storm and the delta variant, which drove families with people away. elderly.

Chen said Shabu House, like most applicants, had not received any assistance from the federal restaurant revitalization fund as of June. Chen said she was concerned that the lack of funds would put traditional restaurants at a further disadvantage when taking over Asiatown.

“Some places worked well because they were more mainstream, they had more money to spend on social media, and they hired people to start marketing for them,” Chen said. “Most small places for moms and dads couldn’t afford it.”

But two restaurant patrons on Saturday said they had no plans to stop coming.

“Shabu House stands out above the rest for me,” said Wesley You, a recent college graduate. “This is where my family has been going for about ten years now.

While reading the OCA-GH flyers, you asked Chen if he could volunteer with the canvassing team. As Shabu House is both a restaurant and a community service center, it was “encouraging to see,” he said.

“It’s super unique and made me want to learn more about Asian-American issues,” You said.

Uncertain recovery

More Texans are being vaccinated in time for “warm weather,” Chen said as Shabu House filled up Monday night. A week ago, the restaurant finally pulled back its anti-COVID curtains after customers said it reminded them more of the pandemic than of pandemic safety, she said.

From his perch at the OCA-GH table, Chen could see everything in Shabu House except the future.

In the fall, she said, she would test new lunchbox specialties and new bubble tea flavors to attract customers from a new wave of Houstonians who have just discovered Asiatown. She hoped that more regulars would gradually come back as well.

“I think they will come back because they love the food and they love the fact that we know their names, or at least what they want to order,” Chen said.

She stopped, watching the evening crowd passing by a Taiwanese cafe, next to an acupuncture spa, next to a karaoke bar. A constellation of neon signs flashed as the sun set.

“I plan to redo the windows to put better pictures of our food,” Chen said. “And on the other side, for information on community events.”

The reporter was an intern at OCA-Greater Houston High School.

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