Michy’s serves Puerto Rican Chinese cuisine

Few Houstonians are as qualified as Michelle Lau to explain the quality of Puerto Rican Chinese cuisine. We sat amused and ready to dine at Western Lao restaurant, Michy’s Chino Boricua, as she relates her story of fare, which began in China, was formed in Puerto Rico and really started in earnest in Houston only a few years ago.

First, the details: Chino Boricua opened at Michy’s a year ago this month at the far end of a small shopping strip on Greenhouse Road. It’s fast food with counter service and served in ready-made containers whether it’s eating out, ordering outside, driving or getting delivery. Everything but the fries (the usual in this fast-food fusion) is freshly made and prepared in-house. Dishes come with a variety of proteins (chicken, steak, pork, and shrimp), vegetarian options and sides that enhance this odd culinary mix. You can order your starters with pork fried rice, toston or mofongo. Depending on the set chosen, prices for the plates range from $8.75 to $18.50.

Another special: the food is fresh and delicious and fills a void in the food scene that prides itself on variety. While this may be uncommon two-step in Texas, Lau said the mix of cultures is prevalent in Puerto Rico.

“In Puerto Rico, the Chinese fast food restaurants that you’re going to see, they’re all going to be fusion. They’ve all been assimilated into Puerto Rican flavors with some ingredients. Like bananas, for example. You won’t find that in Chinese restaurants. But you have to kind of see what people are eating.” This is a staple of the Puerto Rican diet, bananas, rice, and beans.”

Pepper steak and mofongo

Photography by Jesse Sendigas Jr.

And these items are on the menu, sharing space with lo mein and egg rolls. We’ve tried quite a few selections over a couple of visits now and are still deciding which is the best to pick from the menu panel unlike many of the others we’ve encountered. While Lao told us Michy’s story, we waited for one of the restaurant’s offerings, pepper steak served with a side of mofongo ($13.50). The former is a favorite Chinese food and the latter is Puerto Rican delight, which is a concoction of fried green bananas dotted with chunks of crunchy Checharon. Together they work like a steak and potato dish, covered in a rich, homemade sauce.

The Caribbean island has a long tradition of Chinese immigration dating back to the 19th century, so it’s only natural that cultures meld their food into something that the Lao considers to be entirely Puerto Rican. Her story is as interesting as this interesting kitchen. She said her parents left China when they were young. Her mother was 23 years old and her father was only 15 years old. They had met in Panama, where they lived and where Lau and her older brother were born. Like many other immigrants, they sent Lao and her brother home in China while they were trying to find a place to settle down and raise a family. From Panama, they tried New York, but it didn’t fit.

“Puerto Rico was the next place they got to know someone and that way they decided on Puerto Rico. Everything was just as they were used to. Life is so cold,” said Lau, Spanish-speaking.

Her parents worked in a Chinese restaurant there, learned the trade, saved money, and in 1992 opened Fu Ho, in Corozal, “a town right in the middle of the island,” Lau explained. “Not at all like city life, it is very rural. This was their first restaurant. I remember that first restaurant. My parents worked and worked from morning to night, so we used to spend a lot of time in the restaurant. To be honest, we came home just to sleep.” .

Click to enlarge Karen Fritta, fried rice and french fries - Photo by Jesse Sendigas Jr.

Karen Fritta, Fried Rice and French Fries

Photography by Jesse Sendigas Jr.

“Even when I was kids, I used to work a lot in the restaurant, you know, just follow our parents and see what they were doing. I think that’s how he imprinted on me,” she said.

Lau moved to Orlando, Florida to attend college at just 16 years old. She earned her master’s degree in accounting while living in San Francisco and worked for an accounting firm as an auditor and then a revenue accountant. I worked as a professional accountant for ten years after college, but the roots I had in the restaurant industry faded with the need to grow and thrive.

“In the back of my mind I was as if I still wanted to open a restaurant, and it’s something I’m passionate about, it’s one of my dreams to do it,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. You know, your parents do one thing and don’t think it’s the thing their kids should be doing. They expect you to be something else, no matter what.”

She said she wished to concede very carefully to her parents. She left the field of accounting and became a restaurateur, which gave the family a new life. She said her folks helped her with everything from finding a site to negotiating with contractors to approving their recipes.

“I moved on from my parents’ restaurants in Puerto Rico. It is all passed down, from learning how to cook, how to prepare, how to do each individual stop. Yes, all I learned is from them.”

Click to enlarge The restaurant's bestseller is the boneless barbecue ribs platter, served here with accent stones - Photo by JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

The restaurant’s best seller is the boneless barbecue ribs, which is served here with accent stones

Photography by Jesse Sendigas Jr.

Lau said she came to Houston in October 2019. She started a restaurant in Katy with a partner, which is also a Puerto Rican Chinese venue, that opened in February 2020, right at the start of the COVID lockdowns. It closed for 90 days and reopened with prepared foods. But the partnership didn’t work out and she left this restaurant in July 2020 to focus her efforts on something she would have more autonomy about. She wasn’t giving up, just moving forward, probably at the worst time in history to open a restaurant.

“In my opinion I needed to prove it, I could do it, and whatever happened – the pandemic happened, partners, we didn’t get along – I’m not going to stop,” she said. “We opened in May 2021, so it’s been a year here.”

We smelled our food from the dining area table we shared with Lau and got excited about the gems, an addictive $6 side item that takes a Chinese turn with garlic chips and butter, the pre-crunch relishes you hear when you chomp on them. We also sampled the restaurant’s bestselling plate, boneless barbecue ribs ($14.50 with tostones). We asked if Lau was surprised to see the dearth of Puerto Rican restaurants in Houston upon her arrival. They seem few and far between.

“Originally when we opened up and decided to do Puerto Rican Chinese, we didn’t necessarily think there would be a lot of Puerto Ricans or that was going to be the main demographics. We just thought, We know this is really fast Chinese food, the way we do in Puerto Rican. Everyone would love this. That was our mentality, it’s just really good food.”

The store enjoys strong patronage from the city’s Puerto Rican community. It’s evident in the trips we’ve taken to Michy’s. We were greeted in Spanish whenever we walked up to the counter.

“I mean, at the end of the day, I really want Chinese cuisine from Puerto Rican cuisine and what is clearly known not only by Puerto Ricans but by the majority of people,” Lau said.

Click to enlarge Michy's Opens May 2021 - Photography by JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

Michy’s opened in May 2021

Photography by Jesse Sendigas Jr.

The best way to do this is to serve delicious food, of course. We tried the carne frita, fried pork chops and rusk, the perfect Puerto Rican bite and Lao’s favorite protein on the menu. We paired it with fried rice and the marriage seemed to go well. There is also a great fried chicken platter, a side of one’s choice along with two dark meat pieces of chicken marinated and fried, so the extremely crispy skin makes a clack that can be heard back on the island.

“All Chinese restaurants have fried chicken in Puerto Rico,” Lau said, explaining how the menu came together. “Because my parents had restaurants previously, it was easy for us to say here which are the main courses, the best dishes, the most popular and what people order the most. If you go to Puerto Rico the menu will be a little more comprehensive but there are a lot of items that are not ordered. Equally. We kind of took the more common items and that’s what we settled on.”

Lau settled on one dessert, a delicious fried cheesecake reminiscent of a Japanese restaurant her father ran in Puerto Rico. Cake tempura is fried and whipped, then served with a drizzle of guava lao from her father who made them for sushi rolls. It’s a fun bite and a must-try at only $6 a slice.

Still a relative newcomer to the city’s dining scene, Lau is trying to meet more people in this community. Currently, Michy’s Instagram follows from Blood Bros. BBQ, Houston’s gold standard for Asian-inspired food, and many IG users who have Puerto Rican flag icons alongside their handles.

“I get a lot of DMs, people say ‘Hey, it should open in Tampa’, ‘Hey, it should open in Atlanta’, and a lot in Florida because there are a lot of Puerto Ricans and they’re always looking for Puerto Rican Chinese food. It’s just a fact. We got really nice messages from people saying that Puerto Rican Chinese food he is Puerto Rican food. There is no division there, as if they consider it their own.”

Lau is getting visibly emotional as he talks about this and it’s clearly about more than just food or running a restaurant. She remembers trying to adapt to the island as a child, from Puerto Rico through Panama and China. I have found acceptance and connection through food and that is what is at the heart of Michy’s Chino Boricua.

“It’s being seen as part of their culture now – it’s not Chinese or Puerto Rican, it’s just what it is,” she said. “it is very beautiful.”

Michy’s Chino Boricua, 2424 Greenhouse Road No. 180, 832-321-4811. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and closed on Tuesdays.

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