Customers drive hundreds of miles for a plate of mofongo and barbecued pork at Michy’s Chino Boricua
A large SUV parks in front of a Katy storefront, and out pour five men, a few with the Puerto Rican flags branded proudly on their shirts. They’ve driven hundreds of miles from a military base in Laredo to get one thing — Chinese Puerto Rican food at Michy’s Chino Boricua.
After ordering takeout trays heavy with food, the men are quickly entranced, quieted by mounds of mofongo, mashed plantains piled high with pepper steak, crispy tostones with mayo-ketchup, and carne frita — chunks of seasoned pork fried hard.
For a minute, one man says, he is transported back home.
“I feel like I’m on the island,” he says before he and his friends load up again in their SUV to make their five-hour haul back to base.
For owner Michelle Lao, 32 — better known as Michy — a Houston-area transplant who spent her formative years in Puerto Rico, this has always been the goal.
She opened the casual fast-food and takeout restaurant in Katy in May 2021 in hopes of bringing her roots as a Chinese American Puerto Rican stateside.
Back home, she says, this combination of Latin and Asian flavors — a product of Chinese immigrants bringing their foodways to the Caribbean island and fusing them with local spices and ingredients — is a mainstay, but here in the States, particularly in Texas, it’s a rarity. At Michy’s, though, Chinese Puerto Rican cuisine can be experienced in its entirety with recipes passed down from generations.
The Carne frita, for example — a take on the traditional Puerto Rican preparation — incorporates a marinade using Chinese five-spice and curry powder, while tender, boneless barbecue ribs, a Cantonese classic, are glazed in a sweet sauce and served most commonly with fried rice. Also on the menu is the juicy, dark meat-only fried chicken, made in a large wok and seasoned with a blend of traditional Latin and Asian spices like oregano, cumin, and achiote. There are sides of plantains offered in myriad ways — as mashed piles of savory mofongo; in succulent, sweet, pan-fried chunks; or as flattened green discs, fried to make garlic-and-butter-tossed tostones that are served with a creamy combination of mayonnaise and ketchup. And, a gooey fried guava cheesecake that hints at a popular island fruit.
“We’re trying to teach and pass on the knowledge of how to cook [Chinese Puerto Rican food] to non-Chinese descendent[s] and share that with everyone,” Lao says.
Lao’s parents, who immigrated from China to Panama, moved to Puerto Rico when Lao was just two years old in hopes of building a better life for their family. There, they opened Fu Hou, a chain of Chinese buffets, sushi, and fast-food restaurants, infusing their traditional Chinese dishes with Puerto Rican flavors. Today, these Chinese restaurants in Puerto Rico are “where you go after a baseball game after school,” says Cristina Banuchi Rivera, a Puerto Rican native and Houston resident who first met Lao in middle school while living on the island. “It’s one of my greatest memories — eating at those types of restaurants,” she says. “It’s very much a part of the culture over there.”
But on the mainland, her family’s cuisine has a flavor discernable from traditional or even “American-style” Chinese food due to the incorporation of Latin spices, Lao says. This, she thought, was an incredible opportunity.
Despite her parents’ wishes for her to branch out of their chosen industry, go to college, and choose a different career path (the desire of most hardworking immigrant parents, Lao says), she was transfixed. She felt “born” to open a restaurant.
“I did everything my parents wanted me to do,” says Lao, who finished high school in Orlando, Florida, and graduated with a degree in accounting before pursuing a career in San Francisco. But maintaining a restaurant stuck with her.
“I watched my parents do it, and I’d just helped here and there, but then it got to a point where I decided what I wanted to do in my life,” she says. “I love everything about creating a space where people gather and catch up. I love going to a restaurant and finding new food. This had always been on the back of my mind.”
After Lao’s mother relocated in 2016 to Katy, a diverse area in which her parents knew they could use their Cantonese- and Spanish-speaking skills, Lao made her pitch — asking her parents to help her launch Michy’s Chino Boricua.
Though her father Afu had initially envisioned another life for her, Lao’s commitment to exposing people stateside to Chinese Puerto Rican food made him proud, he says, and he agreed to help.
“He thought, ‘Let’s do this,’” Lao says, translating his words from Cantonese. And after packing up her life in California, Lao relocated to Texas to pursue the restaurant in full force, learning “everything from zero” and mastering family recipes, including signature dishes like orange chicken, and fried rice loaded with tender bits of pork.
In 2019, Lao moved to the Houston area. Her father retired, and in 2021, sold his restaurants in Puerto Rico. That same year, Lao officially opened Michy’s, a corner storefront with a drive-thru, making Chinese Puerto Rican cuisine accessible to Houstonians and Puerto Ricans traveling from across Texas to experience a slice of home. Today, Lao says around 80 percent of her clientele is Puerto Rican or of Latin descent with some knowledge of the cuisine.
“I’ve received so many messages saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re open here. It just brings me back home,’” Lao says.
For Rivera, Lao’s decision to quit her corporate job in pursuit of cooking up Chinese Puerto Rican cuisine has been an inspiring tale. Previously, she says, she was only able to get a semblance of home at a Cuban restaurant, and one of the few Puerto Rican restaurants in the state, but at Michy’s, the food “really hits home.”
“I’ve seen a lot of Puerto Ricans move, and it’s one of the things you look for,” Rivera says, but Lao wants Michy’s to be more than just a comforting place for her fellow Puerto Ricans. She wants it to be a place where she can share her culture.
“That’s the goal, too, is to introduce people who aren’t familiar,” says Lao, who hopes to open at least one more store in the area. “It couldn’t make my heart any warmer.”
Michy’s Chino Boricua is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays. 2424 Greenhouse Road #180, Houston, TX 77084.
Source: Houston Eater