Few Houstonians are as qualified as Michelle Lao to expound upon the goodness of Chinese Puerto Rican cuisine. We sat rapt and ready to eat at Lao’s westside restaurant, Michy’s Chino Boricua, as she related her own story with the fare, one which began in China, was forged in Puerto Rico and truly began in earnest in Houston just a few years ago.
First, the particulars: Michy’s Chino Boricua opened a year ago this month on the far end of a small shopping strip on Greenhouse Road. It’s fast food with counter service and is served in to-go containers whether eaters are dining in, ordering out, driving thru or getting delivery. Everything except the French fries (customary to this fast food fusion) is prepped and made fresh in-house. Plates come with a variety of proteins (chicken, steak, pork, shrimp), vegetarian options and sides which promote this offbeat culinary mashup. You can order your entrée with pork fried rice, tostones or mofongo. Depending on the combo chosen, plate prices run from $8.75 to $18.50.
Another particular: the food is fresh, delicious and fills a void in a food scene which prides itself on diversity. While this might be an uncommon Texas two-step, Lao said the blend 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 kind of assimilated to the flavors of Puerto Rico with some of the ingredients. Like the plantains, for example. You’re not going to find that in Chinese restaurants. But you need to kind of see what the people are eating. That’s a major staple in a Puerto Rican diet, plantains, rice and beans.”
And, those items are on the menu, sharing space with lo mein and egg rolls. We’ve tried a few selections over a couple of visits now and are still determining the tastiest to choose from a menu board unlike many others we’ve encountered. While Lao told us the story of Michy’s, we waited on one of the restaurant’s showcase offerings, pepper steak served with a side of mofongo ($13.50). The former is a Chinese food favorite and the latter is a Puerto Rican delight, a mash of fried green plantains dotted with bits of crispy chicharron. Together, they work like a steak and potatoes plate topped with a rich sauce made in-house.
The Caribbean island has a long tradition of Chinese immigration going back to the 1800s so it’s only natural that the cultures would meld their foods into something Lao considers wholly Puerto Rican. Her story is as interesting as this interesting cuisine. She said her parents left China as young people. Her mother was 23 and her father just 15. They’d meet in Panama, where they both lived and where Lao and her older brother were born. Like many other immigrants, they sent Lao and her brother home to family in China while they tried to find a place to settle and raise a family. From Panama, they tried New York, but it wasn’t the right fit.
“Puerto Rico happened to be the next place that they knew someone and that’s how they decided on Puerto Rico. Everything was just what they were used to. Spanish speakers, life is very chill,” Lao said.
Her parents worked in a Chinese restaurant there, learned the trade, saved money and in 1992 opened Fu Hou, a restaurant in Corozal, “which is a town right in the middle of the island,” Lao explained. “Not at all like city life, very rural. That was their first restaurant. I remember that first restaurant. Both my parents worked and they worked from morning to nighttime, so we would spend a lot of time at the restaurant. We only went home to sleep, to be honest.”
“Even as kids I would work at the restaurant a lot, you know, just kind of follow our parents and see what they were doing. I guess that’s how it imprinted on me,” she said.
Lao moved to Orlando, Florida for college at just 16. She got her master’s degree in accounting while living in San Francisco and worked at an accounting firm as an auditor and then a revenue accountant. She worked as a professional accountant for the better part of a decade after university, but the roots she had in the restaurant industry twitched with the need to grow and thrive.
“In the back of my mind I was like I still want to open a restaurant, that’s something that I’m passionate about, it’s one of my dreams to do it,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. And you know, your parents do something and they don’t think that that’s the thing for their kids. They expect you to be something else, whatever it is.”
She said she expressed the desire so intently her parents had to concede. She left the accounting field and became a restaurateur, giving the family business new life. She said her folks helped her with everything from finding a location to negotiating with contractors to adopting their recipes.
“They’re passed down from my parents’ restaurants in Puerto Rico. All of that is passed down, from learning how to cook, how to prep, how to do every single station. Yeah, everything that I’ve learned is from them.”
Lao said she came to Houston in October 2019. She started with a restaurant in Katy with a partner, also a Chinese Puerto Rican place, which opened in February 2020, right at the start of COVID lockdowns. They closed for 90 days and reopened with to-go foods. But the partnership didn’t work and she left that restaurant in July 2020 to focus her efforts on something she’d have more autonomy over. She wasn’t giving up, just moving on, at possibly the worst time in history to open a restaurant.
“In my mind I was just like I need to prove it, that I can do it and whatever happened 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 Lao and got excited about the tostones, an addictive $6 side item which takes a Chinese turn with garlic flakes and butter, the tastes that come ahead of the crunch you hear when you bite into them. We also sampled the restaurant’s bestselling plate, the boneless BBQ ribs ($14.50 with tostones). We asked if Lao was surprised to see a dearth of Puerto Rican restaurants in Houston when she arrived. They seem few and far between.
“Originally when we opened and decided to do the Chinese Puerto Rican, we weren’t necessarily thinking that there were going to be a lot of Puerto Ricans or that that would be the major demographic. We just thought, hey, we know that this is really good Chinese fast food, the way that we do it in Puerto Rico. Everybody must love this. That was our mentality, it’s just really good food.”
The shop does enjoy solid patronage from the city’s Puerto Rican community. It’s evident in the trips we’ve made to Michy’s. We’ve been greeted in Spanish whenever we’ve stepped to the counter.
“I mean, at the end of the day I do want the cuisine of Chinese Puerto Rican food and what it is to not only be known obviously by Puerto Ricans but by the majority of people,” Lao said.
The best way to do that is to serve delicious food, of course. We tried the carne frita, chunks of breaded and fried pork, a quintessential Puerto Rican bite and Lao’s favorite protein on the menu. We paired it with the fried rice and the marriage seemed so right. There’s also a wonderful fried chicken plate, the side of one’s choice coupled with two dark meat pieces of chicken seasoned and fried so the ultra-crispy skin makes a crackle that could be heard back on the island.
“All Chinese restaurants have fried chicken in Puerto Rico,” Lao said and explained how the menu came together. “Because my parents had restaurants previously, it was easy for us to say here are the main dishes, the top dishes, what’s the most popular, what people ask for the most. If you go to Puerto Rico, the menu’s a little bit more extensive but there’s a lot of items that are not ordered as much. We just kind of took the most popular items and that’s what we settled on.”
Lao settled on a single dessert item, a decadent fried cheesecake that recalls a Japanese restaurant her father ran in Puerto Rico. The cake is tempura battered and deep fried, then served with a guava drizzle Lao adopted from her dad, who created it for sushi rolls. It’s a fun bite and a must-try at just $6 a slice.
Still a relative newcomer to the city’s food scene, Lao is trying to meet more people in that community. Currently, Michy’s has Instagram follows from Blood Bros. BBQ, arguably Houston’s gold standard for Asian-inspired fusion food, and many IG users with icons of the Puerto Rican flag alongside their handles.
“I get a lot of DMs, people saying ‘Hey, you should open in Tampa,’ ‘Hey, you should open in Atlanta,’ and a lot in Florida because there are a lot of Puerto Ricans and they’re always looking for Chinese Puerto Rican food. It’s just a fact. It’s so much so that we’ve gotten really nice messages from people saying that Chinese Puerto Rican food is Puerto Rican food. There’s no division there, like they consider it their own.”
Lao got visibly emotional speaking about this and it’s obviously about more than just the food or running a restaurant. She remembers trying to fit in on the island as a kid, a Puerto Rican by way of Panama and China. She found acceptance and a connection through food and that’s what’s at the heart of Michy’s Chino Boricua.
“Being considered as part of their culture now – it’s not Chinese or Puerto Rican, it just is what it is,” she said. “It’s so nice.”
Michy’s Chino Boricua, 2424 Greenhouse Road No. 180, 832-321-4811. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, closed Tuesdays.